August 26, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Keep the Pressure on China

Early next month, the European Union will be considering the lifting of the "Tiananmen arms embargo" against China. The embargo is so named because it was imposed in reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. A change in the EU's arms policy would simultaneously give approval to EU member states to sell military equipment and technology to China while absolving Beijing of its human-rights abuses against peaceful Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. Doing either would be a mistake.

The EU, led by the French and Germans, are pushing for a change in their arms-export policy for at least three reasons: to balance American global power, to open a new arms market for European weapons in China and to provide group political cover for the policy change.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Paris and Berlin, in intellectual concert with Moscow and Beijing, have pushed for a "multipolar" world. In their construct, the United States' overwhelming power would be counterbalanced by other power centres such as China, Russia, Japan and the EU. For some Europeans, making China more powerful will help them challenge the United States' ostensible global pre-eminence. The rise of China, aided by European arms, will distract the U.S. from its national interests in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, leaving Paris and Berlin with greater influence than they would have otherwise.

The Chinese, of course, see an alignment with other "poles" as an effective way of increasing their own political clout, resulting in increased international leverage and an improved ability to check American power in the Pacific.

Another EU goal in lifting the Chinese arms embargo is to compete with the U.S. in the world's arms market. Since American weapons systems are very competitive globally, the best strategy for the EU is to go places where the Americans aren't selling weapons, such as China.

China, which has the world's third largest defence budget after the U.S. and Russia, spends $50 billion-$70 billion a year on defence. Its appetite for weapons--especially ships, submarines and fighter aircraft--exceeds $5 billion per year.

Raising the arms embargo will also allow the EU to compete with China's main supplier, Russia, increasing competition, driving down weapon prices for the Chinese and enhancing the likelihood of generous, advanced-technology transfers to the Chinese arms industry as part of any arms deal. The Chinese imply that if the EU lifts the weapons sanctions, Beijing will redirect not only military purchases to the EU, but also large, civilian contracts, including commercial aviation and power- generation plants.

EU countries are also sensitive to political criticism at home over the policy change. By altering the policy under the EU's umbrella, it is hoped that they will inoculate themselves from their constituents' disapproval for backing down on China's human-rights record.

The EU's arms-policy change should be opposed for three reasons: human rights, Asian security and weapons proliferation. First, the human-rights situation in China has not improved since 1989. In fact, some suggest it has regressed. Lifting the arms embargo would send the wrong signal to other repressive regimes. Moreover, because China's army still has a domestic-security mission, EU arms could be used to suppress political dissent across China, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Second, China is engaged in a major military build-up that exceeds its defensive needs. In the next few years, China will develop real military options for coercing Taiwan towards unification with the mainland. China also has an eye towards subjugating Japan, dominating Southeast Asia, rivalling India and replacing America as the preeminent military power in the Pacific.

Third, China is a notorious weapons proliferator--from weapons of mass destruction to ballistic missiles to small arms. Lifting the arms embargo will allow sensitive European weapons technology to fall into the hands of China's security partners--Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The world should welcome China's peaceful integration into the international community as an open and free society. But China's troubling human-rights record, prodigious military build-up and irresponsible proliferation activities must be considered as well. In the end, if the EU lifts the Tiananmen arms embargo, it will give approval to dismal human-rights records everywhere, tacitly sanction weapons proliferation and increase the likelihood of conflict in the Pacific. None of these consequences is in anyone's interest--not even those living halfway around the world in Europe.

Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, served in Latin America while on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Far East Economic Review