The EU and China: A call to arms


With the EU now considering lifting its arms embargo on China, David Uwakwe argues that the People’s Republic hasn’t done enough to change its ways

The Spanish presidency of the EU is considering lifting the 21-year-old arms sales embargo on China, put in place to after the events in Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989 when several hundred civilians were killed.

Three weeks after the crackdown, the then twelve-member EC made a political declaration that called for the “interruption by the member states of the Community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China.” It was firmly in place up until five years ago when Germany and France began to question this imposition on a growing trade partner with whom the EU was trying to build a ‘strategic partnership’.

They argue that both sides would benefit from a revised and enhanced EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, so that the Chinese arms embargo could be dropped and China obliged to abide by the terms of the Code of Conduct if it is to be allowed purchase European military equipment.

On these grounds the embargo was about to be lifted when China passed the ‘anti-secession law’ which states that, in the event of a Taiwanese attempt to win independence “the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Following the passing of this law and pressure from the US, the EU decided to keep the embargo in place.

However, the head of the rotating EU presidency, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has broached the issue once again, promising to ‘deepen discussions’ with China about lifting the embargo.

So why does the EU now see fit to repeal the embargo? One would think that such a decision would be based on discernable improvement in China’s human rights record. However, no such improvement has taken place.

In fact China continues to disregard their obligations in this respect – for one thing the anti-secession law is still in place. Reports from Amnesty International and the UN, as well as open admissions from China itself, prove it to be supplier of arms to other countries that are under UN, EU, and US arms embargos.

In 2007 China exported $24m worth of arms to Sudan, a country that had just witnessed genocide, and is under an international arms embargo. In 2008 a 77 tonne shipment of arms including three million rounds of ammunition and 1,500 rocket propelled grenades, was sent back to China when they couldn’t find a southern African port that would unload the cargo, destined as it was for Zimbabwe in time to arm Robert Mugabe’s crackdown on opposition supporters and politicians. Zimbabwe continues to be under an EU arms embargo imposed in 2002.  North Korean defectors have reported a Chinese involvement in Myanmar’s burgeoning nuclear missile development plans.

But since these things happened in the distant past, the Chinese now see fit to argue, and some European countries are disposed to agree, that gradual advances have been made in human rights and civil freedoms in the People’s Republic, and now they should be rewarded by lifting the arms embargo. According to the government, China is a paragon of democracy where regular elections take place in hundreds of thousands of villages and cities however citizens must vote for a candidate from a list pre-approved by the government.

Another ‘advance’ has come in the form of a 2003 amendment to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, stating that “The state respects and preserves human rights”. If that’s the case then they obviously don’t respect the constitution because despite the above amendment to the contrary, Chinese human rights abuses are numerous in kind and often huge in scale. The continued wholesale suppression of Tibetan freedom or even increased autonomy; suppression of ethnic Uigher culture and identity; imprisonment of political reform campaigners; liberal use of the death penalty; and the kind of everyday disregard for individual rights that we saw in the wholesale demolition of residential areas building up to the Olympic games, bespeaks of a regime that will brook no dissent. What evidence is there to suggest that the Chinese government wont use European made weapons for “non peaceful means” should any mainlanders show “dissent” like the Taiwanese, or like they did 21 years ago? What real evidence is there that China has changed?

For their part the Chinese argue that the embargo is outdated serving no purpose other than to impede more amicable relations between the two powerhouses. They would welcome it more as a gesture of good faith than an opportunity to go wild in the gun stores. A spokesperson for the Chinese government told the EU Observer that lifting the embargo would not result in large orders being placed for European arms. Maybe not, but the double digit annual percentage growth in China’s military budget over the past decade or so suggests that that country is right in the middle of an unprecedented arms build-up.

Those Europeans in favour of lifting the embargo point to the fact that part of this build-up is due to continued arms sales from Europe to China despite the embargo, and say that what is needed is a new improved Code of Conduct. With this in place the embargo can then be dropped. But we’ve clearly seen in cases such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma, that China is not disposed to abide by the rules of the present Code of Conduct. How then, can they be expected to suddenly meet the requirements of this new, more stringent, code?

Finally, the argument by France and Germany that the revision and enhancement of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports is somehow predicated on lifting the arms embargo on China is mystifying. One does not facillitate nor preclude the other, it’s a non sequitur, a smokescreen designed to obfuscate the fact that although the EU maintains that this new code will be a catch all, what it will actually do is allow the EU to be seen to be coming down hard on the Sudans and -istans of this world while they let the biggest fish of them all through the net.

The obvious thing to do to preserve and improve international security and effect a general reduction in the supply of weaponry in world-wide circulation would be to keep the Chinese embargo in place, but make it legally binding, and alongside this put in place a new robust EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, and continue to call upon China to live up to its human rights obligations. Anything less is just more of the same.