Europe, China and the Arms Embargo:
The Implications of European-Chinese Partnership for American Interests

Remarks by Ellen Bork
Deputy Director, Project for the New American Century
American Enterprise Institute
February 1, 2005

I appreciate the invitation to be here today to talk about the EU arms embargo on China and why it shouldn't be lifted.

There are major differences in American and European experiences and responsibilities in Asia generally, and toward China specifically. This is not just an American viewpoint. European experts say the same thing. For example, Frank Umbach of the German Council on Foreign Relations has written that despite assertions to the contrary, EU policies are "guided primarily or even exclusively by its trade and economic interest, thus neglecting and overlooking many strategic security challenges."

Umbach has also traced Germany's decision to push for lifting the EU arms embargo to "a rather unilateral ad-hoc decision within its own government … without consulting its own Foreign Ministry in advance and without the Chancellor's office itself having sufficient expertise on the many Asian and global security issues." (By the way, Umbach argues that this weakness indicates that German policy is not motivated by a drive to provide a counterweight to U.S. policy in Asia but is the product of a trade-driven foreign policy uninformed by security concerns.)

The United States, on the other hand, has obviously had long experience in Asia, one that goes well beyond trade interests and is so well known to this audience that I won't go into it in detail. But as you all know, the result is that the U.S., among other things, plays the leading role as the guarantor of regional security, has longstanding alliances in the region, as well as maintaining a deep commitment to Taiwan.

It is against this backdrop that the EU embargo has become a point of contention.

America's position on why the EU should not be lifted comes down to three substantive issues: human rights, the threat against Taiwan, and proliferation concerns. Any one of these concerns justifies maintaining the embargo.

Proponents of lifting the EU embargo argue that the situation for human rights in China has changed. There is no quantitative or qualitative assessment of this change. The point seems to be that the days of mass campaigns with their catastrophic death tolls - dating back to the 1970s - are gone. But take the current state of affairs. China imposes the death penalty, without due process, on as many or more than 10,000 people a year, according to one Chinese source. Religious repression has increased and is extremely brutal, targeting Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and the Falun Gong. Labor protesters and political activists, as well as internet essayists, face persecution. Tibet is in desperate condition. The combination of China's Western development campaign and its manipulation of the global war on terror pose a dire threat to the Uighurs, of Xinjiang. As for the consequences of Tiananmen Square, Chinese people are still living with them. The Communist Party has not reversed the verdict on the democracy protesters and it remains impossibly dangerous to advocate democracy.

China is notorious for not meeting its promises on human rights - including, for example, not allowing the ICRC into its prisons, as it promised to do in order to bring about a visit by President Clinton, or ratified, not to mention enforced the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The State Department referred to broken promises undertaken in 2002 as part of its conclusion that since then there has been deterioration in human rights. Certainly, lifting the embargo will not bring about human rights improvements. I would add here that Chinese dissidents, among them Bao Tong and Liu Junning, have asked for continued international pressure on China over human rights.

Nor is it meaningful to argue that China does not belong in the same category as other countries to which Europe refuses arms - Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe. The category does not have uniform criteria for admission. It simply identifies those countries that European policy and public opinion cannot countenance arming. Zimbabwe, for example, actually has an opposition party, persecuted though it is. Moreover, neither Zimbabwe, nor Burma is building up an aggressive military capacity to take over a democratic country. China is.

That brings us to the situation in the Taiwan Strait. While China's human rights record has not changed enough to warrant lifting the embargo, its threat to Taiwan has grown much more serious. But Europe's lack of experience and exposure to strategic concerns in Asia means that Taiwan is even more isolated in Europe than it is in the United States. President Chirac has insisted that there is no threat to Taiwan, saying lifting the embargo is "obviously not likely to change the strategic balance of power."

This assertion displays a real lack of appreciation of the situation that American officials are trying to get across. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless told the U.S.-China Commission, last year, "China's ability to acquire, integrate and thereby multiply its force posture has really increased dramatically…. [W]hat the EU does or doesn't do with its arms embargo or limitation vis-à-vis China is much more important than, say, it was even four or five years ago." Certainly, where Taiwan is concerned, the embargo makes even more sense today than it did in 1989. Remember that just a few years ago, the Pentagon said that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait would begin to tilt in Beijing's favor in 2005.

European governments are even less able to withstand the pressure from Beijing to delegitimize the democratic government of Taiwan than is Washington. President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder have adopted Chinese rhetoric on Taiwan, including endorsing the "one country, two systems" framework.

Finally, China is a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction-related technology and missile technology. China does not have a legal system or a political system able to limit proliferation. This is a particular concern for Europe which is taking the lead on dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

About two weeks ago, the Bush administration announced sanctions on eight Chinese firms for helping Iran with missile programs. In 2004, China was sanctioned multiple times for its proliferation to Iran.

British Foreign Secretary Straw says that America's position on the arms embargo is a "presentational problem," meaning, apparently, that if the EU's presentation were better, Washington would accept a lifting of the embargo. Other strained arguments include the claims by European leaders like Mr. Solana and Mr. Chirac, that they do not actually intend to sell Beijing weapons. And anyway, an improved code of conduct, in lieu of the embargo, would prevent them from doing so.

Neither argument is convincing. Even with the embargo in place, European sales have strengthened China's military. The proposed substitute, an improved code of conduct, is even less satisfactory. It is, after all, not legally binding. Moreover, an end to the EU embargo would embolden Russia, now a leading supplier to China, to sell more and more lethal equipment.

In other words, the restraints on Europe selling arms to China are political. They are only as strong as European attitudes and understanding about security and human rights and proliferation and Taiwan.

I am trying as I talk about European views not to give the impression that they are monolithic. Many Europeans oppose lifting the embargo for precisely the reasons that the U.S. does. Two national parliaments, the Netherlands' and Germany's, have passed resolutions against lifting the embargo, citing human rights, Taiwan and proliferation. In the Bundestag, members of the Chancellor's own coalition led the effort. And of course the EU parliament itself also opposes lifting the embargo.

America's position as the leading outside power in Asia has for a long time created the assumption that European countries could not play an important role there. Of course, the EU drive to lift its arms embargo on Beijing has challenged that assumption, but in a disturbing way.

Contrary to what some Europeans may think, a lot of Americans have been anticipating European interest in China policy and Asia. Clearly, with the success of an enlarged and united Europe, it is understandable that Europe would seek a global role and would look to Asia, for economic as well as strategic reasons. Rather than wishing to prevent Europe from playing a role there, however, we have hoped to find other partners to work with who share the desire to maintain security in the region, promote democracy and human rights. After all, Europe and America have much more in common with each other than either does with a communist dictatorship.