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April 18, 2005

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The 1989 China Arms Ban: Putting Europe’s Position to Congress

Dr Greg Austin

The European Union (EU) agreed in December 2004 to lift the only one of its arms control regimes that is targeted exclusively at China. The move has emerged as a powerful test of Europe’s new security policy, and of its ability to communicate decisions like this to key allies and stakeholders. The decision taken in December was sound. Though not implemented immediately pending some strengthening of other EU control measures, the move has provoked strong opposition from certain quarters in the USA, especially Congress, from other governments, especially Japan, and from some parliaments in Europe, especially the European Parliament and the German parliament.

The arms ban in question was imposed on China by the Council in 1989 as part of a package of political and economic sanctions in reaction to the violent suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement. All other Tiananmen sanctions imposed by the Council, except this one, have been lifted. Of some particular note, the ban on military to military contacts has been lifted for some time.

For the foreseeable future, even if this China-specific ban linked to the 1989 events is lifted, the European Union (EU) and its member states will limit the flow of their weapons and military-related technology to China under a number of control regimes that do not so specifically target China.

The EU will continue to restrict the flow of its military-related high technology and weapons systems because of standing concerns about human rights in the country and about peace in the Taiwan Strait. This is a good policy, and there is an excellent framework for it. This framework is based in part on the EU Code of Conduct on arms exports agreed in 1998, an evolution of the Common Criteria for arms exports adopted in 1991 and 1992. The EU reviews the performance of its Member States against the Code’s criteria on an annual basis, and publishes quite comprehensive, public data on the flow of weapons to all recipients. The Code will be strengthened in some ways when the ban imposed on China in 1989 is lifted.

If the value of sales of military related technologies or weapons systems from Europe to China were to double or treble within the next five years, this would contribute to an improvement in China’s military capabilities. But the contribution would be miniscule and would likely take ten to twenty years to have any effect at all on the capacities of the Chinese armed forces for large scale combat operations. There is no way that sales on the scale likely to occur would significantly alter China’s calculus of risk for using force against Taiwan. This is even the assessment of the US Department of Defense, an organisation which until recently has had a reputation for being ‘hawkish’ on China.

It is this author’s assessment that China’s recently adopted anti-secession law represents no change in policy toward a more aggressive stance, though it is a response to some increase inside China for firmer action against Taiwan. Of some note, the law mandates the exhaustion of all possible means for peaceful resolution of the dispute before resort to military means. Another important innovation in the law also empowers the State Council, and not just the more hawkish Central Military Commission, to decide on the use of force.

In the area of human rights, the arms ban was imposed mainly to register opposition to use of lethal force by the armed forces on a large scale against unarmed protesters to end peaceful demonstrations. Possible future sales, like the current restrictions, would have no impact on the attitudes of China’s leaders toward the setting of domestic human rights polices.

Critics of lifting the China specific ban of 1989 have not made a credible and coherent case that takes due account of the relatively minor place such a ban occupies in the overall policies of China, or the USA, Japan or the EU. All of these Western countries continue to promote large scale financial flows to China and large scale trade and investment relations with it. Any reproachful signal that the arms ban was supposed to send to China on human rights has been completely outweighed by the lifting of all other sanctions, including the ban on military to military ties, but especially also by the vigorous support by these governments for a large-scale and intensive economic relationship with China.

Moreover, for many years now, neither the USA nor the EU and its member states have regarded the so-called ban as a total prohibition on the sale of military related technologies. The USA consistently, under both President Bush senior and President Clinton, provided exemptions to the Tiananmen sanctions on sale of dual use technologies, and made sales far more strategically important to China’s overall military capability than anything EU members have done or contemplated to date.

The ‘strength of feeling’ in the USA about the EU’s planned lifting of the 1989 China-specific embargo is based largely on ignorance about the EU arms restrictions and of China’s leadership decision-making processes; on lack of familiarity with the mixed record of sanctions and embargos as a tool of policy; or on deliberate mis-representation of the facts. The ‘strength of feeling’ is actually built on domestic political considerations, as most embargo policies are, and not on any evaluation of the effectiveness of the embargo in changing the policy of the target state. The ‘strength of feeling’ comes from several quarters, each with quite distinct interests.

It is time for the EU to face down this alliance of special pleaders trying to preserve an inconsequential, largely symbolic measure that is so visibly contradicted by the massive flows of capital from Europe and the USA, and by the burgeoning relationships between their armed forces and those of China. To do this, the EU must launch an even more vigorous public diplomacy campaign to convince the US Congress that it will continue to restrict the sales of weapon systems to China, much as the USA does it itself, even if the 1989 China-specific ban is written off the books.

This public diplomacy will not be easy. It will need significant resources and substantial involvement of the most senior political figures and well-informed specialists. Leading EU member states, such as Britain, France, Italy and Germany must act together to deliver a common message to the USA.

This strong campaign must be directed more at the Congress than at the Administration because the EU has been more successful in selling its proposed policy change to the Administration. It has better knowledge levels about the EU policies and a generally more business-like approach, whereas the Congress is more ideological and more politically mobilised against China for several quite disparate reasons (human rights, Taiwan policy and the trade deficit). The Administration has not been willing to use its own political capital with Congress to convince it to be more reasonable.

Even when the 1989 arms ban is lifted, especially in the first one to two years, the EU will need to continue working much more vigorously than at present with Congress on these issues to dampen the inevitable tensions that will arise.

Perhaps it is time for the European Council, if it is to have an EU Foreign Minister, to equip that post with the massive public diplomacy assets that it demands, not just for the China case, but for the other big trans-Atlantic issues as well, and the full panoply of the EU’s international security interests.

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