Selling Arms to China: If Europe has to do it, here’s how

James B. Steinberg and
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 18, 2005

On many U.S.-European policy differences, whether in the Middle East or Iraq, Americans themselves are divided, and many even share the European view. But on selling arms to China, U.S. public and political opinion is united.

No one understands why the European Union would consider selling weapons to a country that is at little risk of attack from anyone, but whose military buildup raises the danger of conflict across the Taiwan Strait and could destabilize East Asia.

European leaders argue that China does not deserve to be lumped in the same category of embargoed nations as Zimbabwe and Myanmar, and that Europe has no intention of increasing arms sales to China. The latter assertion is belied by France’s own defense minister, who has touted the potential benefits of transferring more sophisticated weapons technology as a means of getting Beijing to forego its own weapons development.

But even taking seriously the Europeans’ assertion that this is “merely” a political signal, what signal does the EU think it’s sending? In addition to rewarding China for a human rights record since 1989 that is at best mixed, Europe’s actions come at a time when China is sending its own political signals with legislation threatening the use of force to deal with any Taiwanese moves toward independence—or even with a lack of progress toward unification.

In this context, Americans see the lifting of the embargo not as an enlightened gesture of engagement, but, at best, as the irresponsible pursuit of commercial advantage in the growing Chinese market. At worst, it is a direct threat to the security of the United States and key partners in Asia.

Is there a way to avoid the clash that will certainly result if the EU lifts its embargo this spring? It would be nice to believe that Europeans will suddenly rethink their position as a result of U.S. threats, or of the new trans-Atlantic spirit. But that is unrealistic.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and President Jacques Chirac of France are so politically invested in the lifting of the embargo that it is impossible to imagine them agreeing not to move forward. Other EU members, including Britain, have made clear they are not prepared to stand in the way.

Thus if Washington insists that only a complete EU climbdown will avoid U.S. retaliation, the result is likely to be political crisis, renewed trans-Atlantic resentment and the beginnings of a defense-industry trade war just when there was some progress in that area. To avoid this scenario, the United States should challenge Europe to prove it means what it says when it claims that lifting the embargo would be consistent with EU commitments to international stability and human rights.

The United States should offer not to retaliate against lifting the embargo if the EU takes measures that offer concrete assurances that this would not have the negative consequences Americans fear. In this deal, the EU would take the following steps:

Replace the arms embargo with a significantly strengthened Code of Conduct on arms sales that would include dual-use technologies with significant military applications.

The new Code would require transparency in arms sales so that EU members, the EU itself or other concerned countries would have the opportunity to object to a potential sale. It would oblige member states, before authorizing export licenses, to take into account human rights, the potential for re-export of technology and the potential impact of the sale on regional security—and to certify in writing that all these conditions have been met.

Publicly undertake not to sell weapons systems to China, or to provide the technologies to significantly upgrade its military capabilities.

Reiterate opposition to any resort to force or any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo on Taiwan, and commit itself to a dialogue with Taiwan, Japan and other interested parties in East Asia on how to maintain stability in the region.

Invite the United States, Japan and other countries involved to provide the EU with a specific list of weapons and technologies that, in their view, could negatively affect security and stability in the region.

Insist that prior to any lifting of the embargo, China ratify the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and allow the International Red Cross access to its prisons.

None of these measures, of course, would provide an absolute guarantee that the EU would not sell arms to China. But the current embargo does not provide such a guarantee anyway, and commitments such as these would at least provide some reassurance.

If the EU is sincere when it says it cares about human rights in China and that it has no intention of undermining the strategic balance, it should be willing to put its mouth where its money is. If not, the lifting of the embargo will be revealed for the commercial ploy that most Americans think it is.