EU far from united on China embargo

Paris Air Show » 2005
December 12, 2006, 10:37 AM

“When China wakes, it will shake the world.” French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s assessment now lies at the heart of a major polemic between the U.S. and the European Union over the EU’s proposal to lift its arms embargo on the People’s Republic of China.

But the EU itself is far from united on the issue. Both countries presiding over the EU for 2005–Luxembourg and the UK, each for a six-month period– want to avoid tackling the differences between its 25 member countries and have effectively swept it under the carpet. So the controversy is unlikely to blight this week’s Paris Air Show but is certain to resurface next year–quite probably in time to poison transatlantic relations in time for the July 2006 Farnborough airshow.

Germany Wants Human Rights Guarantees

In March, the EU tacitly postponed until at least 2006 an agreement it reached last December to lift its arms ban on China by this June 30. The decision followed a move by German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who argued that the arms embargo should not be lifted at least until Beijing gives guarantees on human rights. The EU has asked for concessions in areas such as the death penalty (which arms-ban proponent the U.S. still practices) and the imprisonment of dissidents, as well as China’s dispute with Taiwan.

This move is strengthened by the nonbinding support of the European Parliament to maintain the embargo following China’s new law that warns Taiwan it will use force if the latter formally declares independence. The parliament favors a strengthened and legally binding European arms export code and seeks to reduce the tension between China and Taiwan.

The U.S. Congress has threatened trade sanctions and restrictions on transfer of technology to countries and companies that sell defense-related equipment to China. Such a move would jeopardize U.S.-European political relations and commercial cooperation, and could also disrupt efforts toward a common European defense policy. However, this could be an empty threat because the U.S. transfers very little strategically important technology to Europe.

Michèle Alliot-Marie, the French defense minister, during a recent visit to Washington suggested a strategic dialog on the subject and more transparency from those who export arms to China. She said any lifting of the EU embargo would not mean massive arms sales to that country.

Friction over Taiwan

There is a feeling within the EU that the U.S. administration, which is considering sending Taiwan antimissile systems reportedly worth $120 billion, should accept that arms supply in the region is a two-way process. Meanwhile, the only agreement on the matter within the EU seems to be to not make a decision–at least for the time being.

The EU’s agreement to lift the arms ban has to be unanimously agreed to by member states–Germany and France have been ardently in favor.

In Germany, Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder asked parliament to lift the embargo, which he described as a “symbolic relic.” He said the move would foster Europe’s influence and trade with China. But the stance of foreign minister Fischer, a leader of the Green Party and the junior partner in the country’s coalition, has caused a political rift with the ruling Social Democrats. Opposition to Schroeder from the conservative Christian Democrats complicates the situation further.

While the row simmers in Germany’s red-green coalition, France’s leaders for once seem united on this issue. Speaking on April 21 during an official visit to China, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin assured Beijing of French support for an end to the arms embargo, saying there is no reason EU leaders should change their December decision in favor of lifting it. This move, he said, would stimulate European economies and contribute to stability in Asia. But Wen Jia Bao, the Chinese prime minister, rejected any “mechanical link between lifting the embargo and the question of human rights.”

Luxembourg most likely will be unable to reach consensus to lift the embargo by the end of its EU presidency two weeks from now, on June 30. The UK, which will then preside until December 31, is unwilling to put the issue on the agenda. The UK sells more defense equipment to the U.S. than the rest of Europe put together and has the most to lose if America carries out threats to restrict Europe’s access to its defense markets. So the shaky European consensus remains on the back burner until the end of this year, but it is expected to boil over in 2006.

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