The European Union has successfully fended off a Chinese diplomatic press to resume arms sales. The decision to delay is a good one: Beijing’s claims of discrimination notwithstanding, East Asia does not need more weapons. Equally important is the rift such sales would engineer in the West: The prospect that European weapons might be used against U.S forces in a contingency involving Taiwan could seriously damage the Atlantic Alliance. Europe, along with other key suppliers, cut off arms sales to China after Beijing violently suppressed prodemocracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The embargo continues to this day, although the EU, along with the rest of the world, has endeavored to build stronger and deeper trading relations with China. Sensing that its image has been rehabilitated and opinion has shifted, Beijing has increased pressure on the EU to resume arms sales.
Premier Wen Jiabao had hoped that he would be rewarded during his recent European tour with a decision to lift the ban. He argued that the maturation of China’s ties with the EU made the arms embargo a meaningless and dated artifact, “a remnant of the Cold War.” Lifting it would provide a tangible symbol of Europe’s readiness to move forward in the relationship. He was no doubt encouraged by French President Jacques Chirac’s remark earlier this year that the ban “no longer corresponds to the political reality” and “makes no sense,” a view that was seconded by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Mr. Wen may have also thought that European arms industries would push for a share of the $11 billion in arms agreements that China has signed since 1999.
Mr. Wen was disappointed. The EU agreed to work toward that end, but set no date for lifting the embargo, although Mr. Javier Solana, the high representative for the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, mentioned a six-month time frame. Even then, an end to the embargo is not guaranteed, as last year the German Parliament and the EU Parliament both voted against lifting the ban. Neither vote was binding, but each demonstrated public concerns.
Earlier this year, the president of the EU Commission said Beijing needs to make more progress on human rights before Europe takes any concrete steps. If China continues to make threatening noises toward Taiwan, arguing that it is willing to go to war, then popular sentiment against arms sales will persist.
The possibility of European weapons being used in a conflict over Taiwan is a real danger. U.S. legislators have warned that any European company that makes deals with China will be banned from doing business with the Pentagon, a more lucrative market by far. That is mostly bluster — there is little chance it would become law — but it is still indicative of the power of the emotions involved.
Driving a wedge between the United States and Europe may well be China’s purpose. China has stood with European governments when they differed with the U.S. on key policy questions in recent months, most notably on Iraq. In principle, Beijing believes in multipolarity, and an independent European voice helps reach that objective. Cracking Western solidarity in this case would constitute a propaganda victory of the first rank. It would signal the complete rehabilitation of China since Tiananmen and provide a stamp of approval for Beijing’s human rights policies too, as the ban was imposed in response to the massive human rights violation at Tiananmen.
There is another, more simple, reason to stick to the arms ban: Asia does not need any more weapons. China has been modernizing its military for over a decade. That process has triggered concerns in Japan and elsewhere about how Beijing will use that military. Some nations have responded in kind. Reportedly, the next National Defense Program Outline will identify China’s modernization as a threat to Japan’s national security. Responses will be required.
Likewise, Taiwan is worried and is contemplating a large package of arms purchases from the U.S. That is likely to prompt a political and a military response from Beijing, increasing tensions and lowering the threshold for a mistake. Realists counter that China’s military modernization is proceeding with or without the Europeans and that they therefore should claim their piece of the pie.
Although it is unlikely that China would buy weapons from the Europeans since it worries about supply reliability, economics dictates that additional suppliers would drive prices down, letting the Chinese get more bang for their buck. If there are principles at stake in this matter — and everyone seems to have a favorite — the most important is that there should be more obstacles to the acquisition of arms, not fewer.
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