The European Union’s new ambassador to Japan denied speculation the EU may remove its arms export ban against China in the near future, and that even if that were to happen, the bloc wouldn’t automatically begin selling weapons to Beijing.

During a recent interview with The Japan Times, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut pointed out that the question of the ban itself is separate from whether the EU will actually begin exporting arms to Beijing.

“At the moment there are no plans at all to lift the arms embargo, but I think sometimes we see a confusion of two separate issues,” he said. “One is the question of whether the European Union should sell arms to China and the other one is an arms embargo which is a political declaration dating back to 1989.”

According to the EUobserver, an online newspaper, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, recommended in a policy paper in December that the EU drop the ban.

“The current arms embargo is a major impediment for developing stronger EU-China cooperation on foreign policy and security matters,” the EUobserver quoted her paper as saying.

Japan has expressed concern over the possibility of the EU lifting the embargo on China, which has been expanding its defense budget by double digits for at least 21 years.

Meanwhile, the EU ban has been in place for more than two decades. It started in 1989 after the bloody Tiananmen Square democracy movement crackdown on thousands of protesters by the Chinese government.

“Even if this (arms ban) were lifted, it would be more of a symbolic act and it would not mean that the European Union would start exporting arms to China,” Schweisgut said.

A former ambassador of Austria to Japan, Schweisgut is the EU’s first ambassador to Tokyo since the Lisbon Treaty took effect in 2009, which established the Europe External Action Service as the EU’s foreign ministry to strengthen its diplomacy.

He is starting his four-year term at the EU delegation at a time when Tokyo is actively seeking to conclude an economic partnership agreement with the bloc.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Cabinet have made it a key policy to pursue free-trade accords with various countries and regions, including the EU. Japan is desperate not to fall too far behind South Korea, which has been very active on the FTA front, including signing a deal with the EU in October.

The annual Japan-EU summit is expected to take place sometime in the first half of this year and Kan is hoping to officially begin negotiations.

But the new ambassador said there is “reluctance” on the EU side.

“I would say at the moment . . . yes, there is reluctance (among EU member states) because the feeling is that it would be very difficult to establish . . . (a) balanced outcome,” Schweisgut said.

According to Schweisgut, there is a “fairly long list” of pending issues standing in the way, mainly focusing on nontariff barriers. One example, he said, is the extremely small share of Japanese government procurement doled out to foreign companies.

According to the data compiled by the Cabinet Secretariat, the percentage of procurement by foreign companies was 3 percent in 2008, down from the 3.7 percent in 2007.

“I think the European industry and also European member states and other actors just need to be convinced that we have an outlook on how to address those open issues from government procurement where we feel that European companies don’t have fair access to exports of beef or to very concrete issues in the area of standards and regulations,” Schweisgut said.

He expressed hope that the EU and Japan will be able to cooperate on a comprehensive level, not only focusing on a bilateral FTA but also in more general areas ranging from political cooperation to global challenges. Japan and the EU have worked together on reconstruction in Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and antipiracy measures off Somalia.

But Schweisgut pointed out that the two sides clash on a major human rights issue — capital punishment.

“There is one issue where views differ between the European Union and Japan and that’s the death penalty,” Schweisgut said. “This is an issue where the European Union has taken a very firm stand.”

All 27 EU member states have abolished the death sentence in principle. It has been urging countries like Japan and the U.S. to end the system.

Japan, on the other hand, has argued that the death penalty deters crime and that a majority of its people are in support of the punishment. However, under the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan, a study panel set up within the Justice Ministry has been discussing the issue since last summer.

“We don’t believe that politics should be governed by emotions and there also has to be political leadership,” Schweisgut said. “It’s a discussion which, of course, in a developed democracy like Japan is going on and has been going on, and all I can say is that we hope that this discussion will finally come to a result which we would like to see.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.