The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #793 on Asia

July 12, 2005

July 12, 2005 | WebMemo on Asia

The East Asia Security Act: A Step Towards Consensus Against Arms Sales to China

With the East Asia Security Act of 2005 (H.R. 3100), Congress has the opportunity to give the President valuable leverage to form a strategic consensus on arms sales to China. EASA mandates that any person, firm, or country that provides military arms, equipment, or technology to China or dual-use items to the Chinese military, security forces, police, or other repressive agencies face heightened scrutiny of its arms relationship with China and, if warranted, be denied access to U.S. weapons technology. By giving teeth to U.S. diplomats' warnings to Europeans who would end the EU's embargo on arms sales to China, EASA will enhance U.S. security and force China to reconsider its military buildup and confront the growing backlash against its aggressive behavior in East Asia.


The need to push for consensus against arms sales to China is clear. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (P.L. 98-6 of April 10, 1979), which foresaw an eventual Chinese threat to Taiwan, Congress declared the policy of the United States "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 on Taiwan." This directive has been taken very seriously by every administration since and has been a central planning guideline for the Pentagon for over a quarter of a century.


But America's commitment to aid democratic Taiwan's defense against China was complicated in November 2003 when the leaders of Germany and France pressed the European Union to lift its 1989 arms embargo on China. Deft U.S. diplomacy and warnings from the U.S. Congress to the Europeans delayed the lifting of the embargo and gave European parliamentarians (especially Germany's Bundestag), the print media, and the European public time to express their opposition to their own governments' agenda. But the matter has not gone away.


In 2005, China increased its threats against Taiwan, whose vibrant and dynamic democracy has taken root only in the past decade. In March 2005, China's rubber-stamp legislature passed a so-called "Anti-Secession Law" that gives the Chinese military unlimited authority to launch a "non-peaceful" action against Taiwan should "major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China …occur," without bothering to define what this means. Taiwan, of course, is already "independent" from China in every practical sense, and the new legislation is simply intended to legitimize Chinese military action against Taiwan should Beijing decide to pursue it.


China's disturbing rhetoric against Taiwan, coupled with its inexorable military buildup in an effort to "achieve victory in local wars in a high-technology environment," is a stark reminder to Pentagon defense planners that the United States may one day confront China. Lifting the European arms embargo would increase the risks to American servicemen in such a confrontation. On June 4, 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained American misgivings about China: "China appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach targets in many areas of the world, not just the Pacific region, while also expanding its missile capabilities within this region. China also is improving its ability to project power, and developing advanced systems of military technology." Secretary Rumsfeld then asked, "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?"


One of the most persuasive points that American diplomats made to their European counterparts in the debate over lifting the arms embargo was that lifting it would anger the U.S. Congress. The East Asia Security Act of 2005 is evidence of that argument. The language is expertly drafted to encourage the European Union to remove the "Tiananmen-era embargo" only when more stringent and legally binding arms export controls are already in place. EU politicians have already promised as much to American counterparts. EASA would ensure that those promises are kept by denying access to U.S. weapons technology to those whose arms relationships with China put U.S. national security at risk. Further, EASA would give the President the authority to impose additional restrictions if dangerous arms transfers continue.


Some U.S. industry associations have expressed concern that the EASA would complicate U.S. defense cooperation with Europe. However few, if any, American defense firms share that worry. They understand that no European defense firms will risk their relationship with the United States if EASA passes and that no European government will risk their cooperative relationships with U.S. partners under it.


Ideally, EASA would be unnecessary in the context of a broad U.S.-EU consensus on the strategic challenge posed by China, and there is much evidence that the Europeans understand intuitively that China's challenge is potent. Without EASA, however, there is the danger that the urgency for a U.S.-EU strategic dialogue on China will abate and lose focus.


EASA can only enhance U.S. security by dissuading Europe from even considering sharing military or dual-use technology with China. Complaints that EASA will somehow "alienate" China betray a blindness to China's rising challenge to the interests of America and all of Asia's democracies, not just Taiwan.


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

About the Author

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