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Till the Dragon spits fire

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 10, 2005

    Putting an end to all speculations, protests from the media and other quarters and hectic Chinese diplomatic parleys in Brussels before the EU-China Summit in December 2004, the EU finally declared (December 8) that the arms embargo on China would not be lifted for the time being. The embargo, which was sanctioned against China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989, remained one of the most debatable issues before the summit. The EU however informed that there was a willingness within the Union to work towards the lifting of the ban. In fact, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attached great importance to the existing embargo. On the eve of the summit, Jiabao, who led the Chinese delegation to Brussels, was categorical while commenting on the EU decision. He informed that the Chinese demand for lifting of embargo does not mean that China would like to purchase advanced weapons from Europe. However, he demanded that the lifting of the sanctions, ‘a legacy of the Cold War’ would put an end to the political discrimination against China.

    Chinese diplomats in Brussels had worked hard to get a decisive outcome on this issue from the summit. Wang Shaoxin, spokesperson at the Chinese Mission in Brussels, also reportedly told the EU officials that continuing the arms embargo would not be beneficial for future Sino-European cooperation. Similarly, on December 3, 2004, a Chinese Foreign Ministry press briefing underscored that although the lifting of the arms embargo would not be linked with any other issue, it would be impossible that bilateral relations would not be affected by maintaining such embargo. Chinese officials were seen to be pursuing this issue with the important European national governments with great care. Finally, a compromise was worked out in the shape of the joint statement at the end of the summit. The Chinese side welcomed it as a positive sign, as the EU confirmed in the joint statement its political will to continue to work towards lifting of the embargo. In return, China also expressed its commitment to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as soon as possible.

    The interest of the European Union in general and some specific nations in particular, in lifting the arms embargo on China, is quite comprehensible. Official statistics speak for themselves. In 2003, the EU sanctioned arms sales to China was worth €416 million, which was almost double of the approved sales in 2002 (€210 million). France, like in 2002 (€105 million), remained at the top of the list with the sanctioned amount of €171 million. While the debate of lifting the arms embargo on China is getting a transatlantic dimension, figures published in the EU Official Journal is certainly not comfortable for the EU. The record of the major EU nations in supplying arms to China, in reality has reduced the embargo to a misnomer. In addition, observers are of the opinion that the EU arms export policy lacks coherence and does not address the issue of transferring dual-use technology to China. The symbolic arms embargo, therefore, strengthens the Chinese and partially European argument that it is a legacy of Cold War and it unnecessarily brackets China with regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea. One may also raise some pertinent facts that China is an important partner in EU Galileo project and as per latest figures, Sino-European trade has reached €122 billion till November 2004, why then the sanctions are still in place?

    The issue appears to have been well discussed at the European Union level and a EU agreement on lifting the arms embargo on China is already on the cards, notwithstanding the American displeasure. This was clearly visible in the announcement made by the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, during the visit of Condoleezza Rice in Europe. But there was yet a dilemma on the EU side under whose presidency the decision would be ultimately taken? Those who are studying the issue minutely may recall that Jean Peter Balkenende, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who held the EU presidency in the second half of 2004, did not specify after the EU-China Summit whether his successor from the smaller Benelux neighbour, Luxembourg, may lift the arms embargo in the first half of 2005. It could be argued that irrespective of the size and population of a member country holding the EU presidency, decisions at EU level are taken unanimously. But it should also be mentioned that every member country also aspires to take some path-breaking decisions during its presidency, which could also be projected later as its major achievements.

    However, given the gravity and political ramifications of the decision to end the arms embargo, it was interesting to observe that Britain, who will hold the next presidency from July 2005, put the responsibility of this unpleasant decision to one of the smallest European nations, Luxembourg. The statement of Jack Straw prior to his visit to Beijing in January 2005, that he believed that the embargo could be lifted during Luxembourg's current tenure, made the diplomatic calculations clearer. Britain would not like to be connected with such a controversial decision to end the fifteen-year old arms embargo, sanctioned on the ground of one of the most historic cases of human rights violations in present times. It is true that European Union collectively and its member nations individually have invested considerably in efforts aimed at improving human rights situation in China. At another level, the EU cannot also deceive itself by endorsing the Chinese argument that the human rights situation has improved remarkably since Tiananmen. The human rights record of China has been rather poor and violations are more discreet then ever before. The effect of sanctions has been negligible. It makes good sense at this juncture to engage China and persuade her to take democratic reforms in a graduated manner.

    But by progressively arming China, the EU may be losing its power to push China towards democracy. Acquiring more military-technological muscle may also contribute to the sense of insecurity in its neighbourhood. In fact, experts opine that there is lack of transatlantic understanding about the region. The EU must consider the ramifications of a further increased military cooperation with China in the Chinese neighbourhood. The questions remain: Will the cooperation augur well for the region and world at large or the European arms merchants may have to wait for the answer, till perhaps the Dragon spits fire?