Wrangling over Arms Sales to China

By Stohl, Rachel | Foreign Policy in Focus, December 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

Wrangling over Arms Sales to China


Stohl, Rachel, Foreign Policy in Focus


On June 4, 1989, the world watched in horror as the Chinese government's crackdown on student protestors took a deadly turn. As Chinese soldiers fired their weapons indiscriminately and Chinese tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square, an unknown number of students and soldiers were killed. The Chinese military continued its campaign of terror throughout the summer of 1989, drawing strong international condemnation.

Following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the European Union and the United States each imposed arms embargoes on China. The United States acted on June 7, in accordance with the Arms Export Control Act--which gives the president the authority to control U.S. arms exports and imports consistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives--and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations--which prohibit arms sales that "would not otherwise be in furtherance of world peace and the security and foreign policy of the United States." The EU followed suit on June 27. Both embargoes remain in place.

Yet although no one has been brought to justice for the events in Tiananmen Square and human rights abuses continue in China, the EU has repeatedly tried to lift its embargo, most recently in April 2005. However, the removal of the embargo has failed, in large part due to continued opposition from the United States. What frustrates the Europeans is that the U.S. position on this issue directly contradicts its own practices with regards to arms sales for the "war on terror." This article will examine this dispute in the context of current events and export control policies.

The European Position

Why would the European Union want to lift its arms embargo on China, given Chinas continued poor human rights record and the tension its pursuit to re-engage with China is causing with the United States? According to the Joint Statement of the Ninth EU-China Summit from September 9, 2006, the European Union remains committed to lifting the arms embargo. To date, France and Germany have taken the lead in these efforts. In September 2006, Italy said it was leaning toward lifting the embargo, in order to increase its overall trade with China. Two primary rationales dominate the European position. First, some EU countries claim that the situation in China has changed immensely in the last 17 years and, therefore, it does not make sense to maintain the embargo based on human rights considerations. Many European governments are trying to improve existing relationships and develop new ties, including trade, with China and see the embargo as a punitive measure which does not help foster trust and cooperation. While the EU touts these diplomatic reasons as the basis of its argument for lifting the embargo, the Europeans' second (and, some might argue, primary) motivation is economics. The EU stands to benefit from opening the Chinese arms market and giving their defense industries a chance to expand and compete with Russia for primary access to the Chinese arms market.

The EU embargo on China has not stopped arms transfers from taking place throughout the past 17 years. The UK and France have stated publicly that their interpretation of the arms embargo extends only to "lethal items and major weapons platforms." (1) According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the UK and France have permitted the sale to China of non-lethal items with "potential military applications"--the United Kingdom has exported Searchwater radar and the French have provided AS-365n Dauphin-2 helicopters--since the embargo was implemented. (2) According to the U.S. State Department, EU data reveals that the total value of export licenses for military goods to China in 2003 was nearly double the 2002 value, with 159 export licenses approved. (3) For example, an October 2006 report, "Arms without Borders," highlights the role European firms played in supplying parts to Chinas Z-10 attack helicopters. (4)

Further, SIPRI found that, between 1989 and 2004, France alone was responsible for 73.

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