International Herald Tribune

Don't lift the arms embargo on China

In his meetings with European leaders this week, President George W. Bush will try to persuade the Europeans not to lift their embargo on arms sales to China. These are the main arguments he is likely to hear for maintaining it, and how the president should refute them.

First, the Europeans will argue that the "embargo" is nothing more than a sentence in a 1989 communiqué issued in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. It is not legally binding, and in any event it has become porous and should be scrapped.

True, the embargo is not a complete prohibition on defense technology or component transfers to China. Yet it has largely prevented the flow of lethal weapons to China (certain sales by France are the exception). Moreover, the embargo continues to send a strong political signal to the Chinese government that it has yet to come to terms with its actions of 16 years ago. There has been no official expression of regret over Tiananmen, nor has an accounting, or even acknowledgment, of the 1,500 to 2,000 civilian deaths on June 4, 1989. About 2,000 individuals are still in prison, and hundreds more are in exile.

The second European argument is that exports of lethal weapons and defense technologies to China are under strict national export controls in each European Union member state, as well as under the 1998 EU Code of Conduct. After the embargo is lifted, the Europeans say, a strengthened code will provide an even more restrictive regime on arms sales, and the sales will not exceed the "qualitative or quantitative levels" of last year.

It is true that the existing code needs strengthening, as it largely regulates lethal weapons and component parts but makes no provision for defense or dual-use technologies—which is what the Chinese military is mainly interested in obtaining from Europe. Moreover, the code is not legally binding and allows considerable leeway for national interpretations.

We have yet to see the strengthened code, which has been in preparation for over a year, or the so-called "toolbox" which will be applied to countries emerging from embargoes. EU officials admit that it will not be legally binding, and that it will remain substantially up to each member state to interpret. Moreover, there will be no provisions for dual-use technologies (civilian technologies with military application), which fall under the dysfunctional Wassenaar Arrangement.

The third argument put forward by Europeans is that maintaining the embargo is inconsistent with the overall robust state of European-Chinese relations, and prevents the full "renormalization" of ties. Europeans argue that maintaining an embargo stigmatizes China unfairly, lumping it together with pariah states like North Korea, Myanmar and Sudan, and poses an impediment to deepening EU-China relations.

In fact, Europe-China relations have never been better, and it is difficult to identify any impediments to further improvement. China has not withheld any agreements because of the embargo, although it is likely to reward Europe commercially for lifting it.

Fourth, the EU argues that China's human rights situation has improved markedly since 1989 and therefore the original rationale for the embargo no longer applies.

Human rights in China have steadily improved since 1989, but that year sets a pretty low baseline. Moreover, China has still not ratified the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; has not repealed legislation governing its draconian reform-through-labor (laogai) camps; continues various forms of religious restrictions and persecution; continues to incarcerate large numbers of prisoners of conscience; will not permit Red Cross access to its prisons; and has stonewalled in human rights dialogues with Western nations in recent years.

Fifth, in an interview with the Financial Times last week, France's Minister of Defense, Michèle Alliot-Marie, presented a new argument in favor of lifting the embargo: Since China's domestic military industry will be capable of producing "exactly the same arms" that France has within five years, maintaining the embargo is pointless and "lifting it could be better protection for us than maintaining it."

This is the most ludicrous rationale of all. With a few exceptions—ballistic missiles, inertial guidance systems, diesel propulsion and a new generation of tanks—virtually all foreign experts on the Chinese military recognize that China's indigenous military—industrial complex lags 10 to 20 years behind the state of the art.

It is also indisputable that the lack of Chinese access to Western arms markets has demonstrably slowed China's domestic arms manufacturing capabilities. Whatever modern conventional weapons China's military has were sold to it by Russia, not manufactured in China. Even Russia has been very careful not to sell China the latest generation of its weaponry, and Moscow has not transferred the means of production to China, thus ensuring a dependency on Russian spare parts and new systems.

At the end of the day, Europe must have a very clear answer to a simple question: Why is it in Europe's strategic interest to accelerate the modernization of China's military? Answer: It is not.

Moreover, one does not hear China's Asian neighbors clamoring for the lifting of the embargo. Far from it. A China possessing real power projection capabilities would radically change and destabilize the East Asian security environment. This is also of deep concern to the United States.

From the American perspective, none of these arguments touch the real issues: maintaining the security of Taiwan and preventing China from possessing European arms that might be used against American forces. This is the argument that animates the debate in Washington, and against which ultimate European actions will be judged.

Lifting the arms embargo on China is ill-advised. If anything, it needs to be strengthened. Both Europe and America can continue to enjoy robust relations with Beijing while maintaining their respective arms embargoes. China will just have to live with it until it comes to terms with Tiananmen and stops putting military pressure on Taiwan.