Don’t lift the arms embargo on China

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

February 23, 2005

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

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.