E.U. Leadership Finds Little Public Support for Lifting China Arms Ban

Report Asia

E.U. Leadership Finds Little Public Support for Lifting China Arms Ban

March 17, 2005 4 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

A European Union defense team visits Washington this week (March 14-19) to explain a proposal to lift its Tiananmen Square arms embargo on China. From an American perspective, for both human rights and security reasons, the European policy shift is a bad idea. And if the European press is any indication of public sentiment, the vast majority of Europeans also believe that lifting the arms embargo is counterproductive.


Europe's Public Against Lifting Embargo
Since December, European newspapers have run at least 70 different commentaries about the China arms embargo - the vast majority strongly against lifting it. The influential German newspaper Frankfurter Allegemeine called the decision "dangerous." The Berliner Zeitung was dumfounded at the E.U.'s eagerness to sell weapons to Beijing and despaired, "China, China, China … We are watching, flabbergasted, the unanimous motions of the Peoples' Congress in Beijing" that call for unleashing war against Taiwan. Austria's influential Die Presse asked, "even if we disregard the U.S. warnings, is it really wise to open the E.U. arms floodgates to China?" 


European parliamentarians are strongly opposed, too. In October 28, the German Parliament, including the vast majority of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's own Social Democrats and virtually all of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's Greens, passed a resolution opposing Schroeder's attempts to lift the embargo. On November 19, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution 572 votes against 72. And on March 11, leaders of the four German political parties representing Germany in the European Parliament sent an open letter to Schroeder urging him to abandon his support for China arms sales.


The lifting of the arms embargo against China even violates standing E.U. policy. European countries already have in force a voluntary "Code of Conduct" which bans military sales to countries like China:

  • countries that violate internationally-recognized political and civil rights;
  • countries which threaten "regional stability";
  • countries which may threaten the national security of E.U. members "or their allies";
  • countries which might re-export European defense articles of technologies without prior license; or
  • countries which would be likely to reverse-engineer imported European equipment or software or otherwise.

Why Is E.U. Changing Policy?
The E.U. say lifting the embargo would send a "political signal" to China that Europe wants China to "participate responsibly" in the international community in a way befitting a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, as well as "build trust" with China. But many Europeans wonder what kind of political signal it sends when China just passed a law legitimizing the use of "nonpeaceful means" against Taiwan. Shouldn't China show progress on human rights by releasing at least a few Tiananmen prisoners? Couldn't China permit Catholics to worship freely? What about ending Internet censorship?  Shouldn't China be required to do something such as ratify additional U.N. human rights covenants? Tragically, the E.U. leadership (?) apparently don't think so.


The public rationale behind the E.U. commissioners' proposal hasn't gotten any more intelligible, so rather than argue about the wisdom of lifting the ban, Euro-crats make the following three pledges -- none of which is achievable:


  1. Lifting the embargo will not increase weapons sales to China. Yet last month, French defense minister Mme. Michele Alliot-Marie indicated that France, at least, did intend to sell weapons to China. Alliot-Marie explained her reasoning thus: "So maybe if we can sell them the arms, they will not make them. And in five years' time, they will not have the technology to make them." Aside from the illogic of the remark, France seems already bent on selling weapons to China. According to E.U. statistics, European countries interpret the embargo ever more loosely. In 2001, E.U. countries issued licenses for about $81 million worth of arms exports to China. In 2003, that number increased six-fold to $555 million, with exports from France accounting for over one-third at $222 million.
  2. The E.U. is in the process of strengthening the existing "Code of Conduct." This process would result in an even tighter arms sales regime. Yet, the "Code of Conduct" remains a work in progress, as does the so-called "tool box" which is supposed to codify China-specific arms policies. Nor is there any indication that the E.U. truly intends that a code and "tool box" will be in place and enforceable by the time the embargo is dropped.
  3. Finally, Europe says it will not give up the embargo "for free."  The E.U. will insist that Beijing make certain "commitments" to improve its human rights behavior such as freeing the Tiananmen prisoners, abolishing the death penalty, suspending extra-judicial "re-education through labor" sentences, and continuing the E.U.-China "human rights dialogue". Yet, following the E.U.-China Summit in Brussels on December 8, E.U. officials hinted that China needed to take "concrete steps" in human rights to help justify easing the embargo. As early as the following week, Beijing's "concrete steps" included ordering the arrest of a prominent Protestant pastor in Zhengzhou.  Since then, police have detained three dissident writers, arrested a Catholic bishop and several other human rights activists and journalists. The post-E.U. crackdown on intellectuals intensified after the mid-January death of former Premier Zhao Ziyang who was purged in 1989 for supporting the democracy movement-certainly a sign that freeing the Tiananmen prisoners will not happen anytime soon. Moreover, on March 14, Premier Wen Jiabao told China's parliament that China "cannot" abolish the death penalty due to the country's "national conditions." Thus, it is painfully obvious that the E.U. will get precisely nothing, other than additional commercial contracts, in return for lifting the ban. 

European public opinion and mass media strongly oppose lifting the arms ban on China. If the European diplomats in Washington this week are not willing to heed American counsel, their administration and congressional interlocutors should suggest that they at least listen to their own citizens. After all, the European Union's members are still democracies. 


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow