Snubbing US, Europe Confirms Plan to Lift China Arms Embargo

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - The European Union confirmed Wednesday it will go ahead with a plan to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo on arms sales to China, despite deep-seated U.S. opposition to the move.

Visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue in talks with European officials in Brussels. Addressing a joint press conference with the president of the EU's Executive Commission, Jose Barroso, she said: "As I understand it, a decision [on ending the ban] has not yet been taken."

"All that we can ask is that the European Union is aware of our concerns, understands them fully and takes them fully into consideration in any decision that is made," Rice added.

A moment later, however, Barroso stated categorically that "the European Union is moving to lift the arms embargo."

He said the EU understood U.S. sensitivities, but added that the 25-nation bloc "cannot be accused of rushing into this."

Although the Iran nuclear issue, Iraq and Israeli-Arab peace efforts dominated Rice's first trip abroad since becoming Washington's top diplomat, the visit drew to a close with stark trans-Atlantic differences emerging over the China embargo.

France and Germany are spearheading the move to lift the embargo, arguing that it is outdated and out-of-place at a time China and the EU are major trading partners.

The union says it is working on updating a "code of conduct" to govern arms sales and limit the type of weapons exported, but it will be voluntary, and critics argue that individual EU countries will be able to interpret it differently.

China currently buys most of its weapons and related technology - including submarines and fighter jets - from Russia. Chinese officials have said they want the ban lifted not to enable "massive imports of weapons" but in order to remove a hurdle to relations.

The embargo was imposed after China's violent crushing of pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The U.S. has argued that lifting the ban would be inappropriate while human rights concerns wrapped up in that atrocity remain unresolved.

"There were about 2,000 people arrested at the time of Tiananmen," Rice said at a separate press briefing in Brussels Wednesday, at NATO headquarters. She noted that those 2,000 remained in prison.

Apart from the human rights issue, the U.S., which has its own arms sales ban in place, also has concerns about the security implications of lifting the European embargo.

Washington is worried about the military balance in Northeast Asia, where the U.S. is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself. Another concern is that Beijing may in future transfer advanced European weaponry to third countries.

'EU move in conflict with US security interests'

EU governments are pushing ahead with the plan to end the embargo -- probably by mid-year -- despite opposition from European lawmakers.

The European Parliament last November passed a resolution calling for the ban to be retained until China had "taken concrete steps toward improving the human-rights situation."

Lawmakers in the U.S. also feel strongly about the issue. Last week the House of Representatives passed by 411 votes to three a non-binding resolution urging President Bush to pressure European leaders to reconsider the plan.

The motion said lifting the embargo would place European security policy "in direct conflict" with the security interests of the U.S. and its allies in Asia.

It threatened unspecified "limitations and constraints" on trans-Atlantic security cooperation if the move went ahead.

The resolution was welcomed by the government of Taiwan, which is closely watching the unfolding developments.

China considers Taiwan a rebel province and has pledged to use force if necessary to prevent any move towards formal independence. Beijing has some 700 missiles deployed along the mainland coastline, pointing towards the island.

Taiwan's economic and trade representative in Indonesia, David Lin, told a press conference in Jakarta Monday that lifting the embargo would give China a major morale boost.

He warned that if the People's Liberation Army modernization program continued at its present level, China would emerge as a new global military power and could pose a threat to Asia, the U.S., and to Europe as well.

Prof. Wu Chih-chung, a political scientist at Taipei's Soochow University, told Taiwan News that the EU failed to appreciate the threat posed to Taiwan, but saw China as "a partner to counter the superpower status of the United States."

Another U.S. ally is also uneasy. Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said last month the EU plan to lift the embargo was a matter "of great concern not only for Japan but for the security of East Asia as a whole."

Proliferation worry

Washington's main security-related concern about lifting the embargo is that in any future war over Taiwan, U.S. forces could face Chinese enemy equipped with sophisticated arms bought from Europe.

The other security worry, that of technology-transfer to third countries, was put into focus again early this week when John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, condemned China for not preventing munitions firms from selling missile technology to Iran, North Korea and other states of proliferation concern.

Addressing a seminar in Tokyo, Bolton said the U.S. would continue aggressively to impose sanctions against Chinese companies that were "serial proliferators."

He noted that while the Clinton administration had over its full eight years sanctioned Chinese firms only eight times, during the Bush administration's first four years it sanctioned Chinese entities 62 times. That policy would continue.

On the question of the EU embargo, Bolton also raised the rights issue, saying it was "important to send a message that the international community continues to be concerned about the Chinese government's continuing human rights abuses."

Such concerns are evidently not shared in equal measure in Europe, however.

Last month British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw caused a stir after expressing sympathy with China's unhappiness at being "lumped" together with other countries targeted by EU embargoes, such as Zimbabwe and Burma.

Human rights campaigners responded that China's abuses made it not at all inappropriate to put it in the same category as other rights violators.

Amnesty International reported Wednesday that Beijing had executed at least 650 people in the two months leading up to the lunar new year, including 200 people over the past fortnight alone.

"The true figure is certainly much higher, as China refuses to publish full details of all the people it executes," the human rights group said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow