June 18, 2004

June 18, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Don't Lift the Arms Embargo on China

British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be making a strategic error if he decided to support the French proposal to lift the European Union's arms ban on China. Reports that he's on the verge of doing so is already creating tensions between the United States and Great Britain at a time when the two nations must jointly lead the war on terrorism and prepare Iraq for the June 30 transfer of power.

An EU decision to lift its arms ban on China would be strongly opposed by the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, and it ultimately could hurt European (including British) defense manufacturers, who risk being denied access to U.S. military technology if proposed legislation is kept in the 2005 defense authorization bill now in the Senate. At bottom, the issue in Washington is whether weapons made by America's European allies would ever be used to kill Americans if the United States became involved in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

A decision by Prime Minister Blair to side with France and Germany against the United States over China would be greeted with pleasure by America's critics in Paris and Berlin, and is already being welcomed in Beijing. The two largest nations in continental Europe are acting in concert on the world stage and a key goal of French and German strategic thinkers is to rein in American and British global power and the highly successful Anglo-U.S. alliance. The French in particular are keen to advance the EU as a counterweight to what Paris sees as U.S. global "hegemony," and the creation of a centralized federal Europe with a common foreign and security policy is a key strategic objective. Until now, Britain has successfully led the opposition against such efforts.

Increasingly, France and Germany are coordinating diplomatic efforts with China and Russia at the U.N. Security Council. The recent draft resolution by Beijing that calls for watering down the Coalition's military authority in Iraq after the June 30 handover was strongly backed by Paris, Moscow, and Berlin. China also sees itself as a major world player and views an alignment with France as an effective way of increasing its leverage in the Security Council and with the EU.

Whether France and Germany succeed in realigning the European Union with Russia and China and away from the United States and its traditional defense of democracies in Asia largely depends on where Britain stands on the embargo. In his private meetings with Mr. Blair at the U.S.-EU summit in Dublin, and at the NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of this month, President George W. Bush will call for Anglo-U.S. unity on China policy. One White House aide told us the president will assert that while this is "a major priority" for the United States, its is "even more important to European" security than to that of the U.S. if transatlantic cooperation in defense research collapses because of European arms dealings with China.

Beijing's ability to use advanced European weapons is far more advanced in 2004 than when the EU embargo was imposed following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China's growing military power since 1989 and its continuing and credible threats to use that power to subjugate democratic Taiwan create an alarming new security concern for U.S. forces in the Pacific that did not exist in 1989. Yet, in 2004, America's European allies contemplate providing China not just with components for its own homegrown weapons, but with complete weapons systems containing some of the most advanced military technology on earth.

Communist China still threatens democratic Taiwan with war and in the defense of democracy in Asia the U.S. Congress has mandated the president, via the Taiwan Relations Act, to "maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan." U.S. military forces may have to face China's European weaponry in a Taiwan conflict. China's acquisition of European arms, therefore, is a matter of the grave national concern in Washington.

China's $50-$70 billion defense budget is the third largest in the world after the U.S. and Russia, and China is aggressively modernizing its combat capabilities. It seeks the most modern military technology available, including French Mirage fighter jets and German stealthy diesel-electric submarines, with the explicit goal of deterring U.S. involvement in a Taiwan crisis.

There are also powerful moral and ethical reasons for the West to continue to refuse to sell arms to China. The European arms embargo on China -- and most of the American embargoes -- were levied in reaction to the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement 15 years ago this month. However, China has failed to improve its human rights record significantly. The 14 human rights reports that the U.S. State Department has issued since 1989 have not reflected any substantive progress in China's treatment of its own citizens. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 2000 the report stated that a "poor human rights record deteriorated markedly throughout the year," in 1999 that China's "human rights record worsened" and in 1998 that it "deteriorated sharply." It appears that the EU will not even require that China improve its behavior before lifting the arms embargo, but merely ask for "more assurances" that behavior will improve. British support for the move would belie Mr. Blair's much vaunted "ethical foreign policy."

While a war in the Taiwan Strait might never come, nothing could damage the Atlantic Alliance more than China's air force and navy using European weapons to kill American forces in a confrontation in the Western Pacific. As the unpredictable forces of democracy take hold in Taiwan and as China's military modernizes and grows self-assured, Washington has very real concerns that efforts to deter Chinese coercion will fail when Beijing publicly declares that Taipei is on a course toward permanent separation from China.

Mr. Blair thus must heed President Bush's pleas to reconsider supporting the French-driven plans to lift the EU arms embargo on China. Mr. Blair's decision will determine whether Britain's strategic future lies with a Franco-German dominated European Union or an Atlantic Community with the United Kingdom as the bridge between the Continent and America.

Mr. Tkacik is Research Fellow in China Policy and Mr. Gardiner is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in The Asian Wall Street Journal