Ending the EU Arms Embargo on China: It's All About Trust


I will argue that it is important to move past the embargo the European Union has on China. This is in the mutual interests of both parties.

The EU imposed its arms embargo on China following the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The United States maintains its own arms embargo against China out of security reasons concerning Taiwan; that if the EU permits weapons export to Beijing, the same weapons can be used against the United States in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Regularly cited is also China’s human rights record (Tibet) as a justification for maintaining the embargo.

Beijing periodically calls for the abolition of the embargo and European countries generally support such a direction, but pressure from America and the rest of the Southeast Asian countries has prevented effective steps to move forward. What emerges here is a very complex geopolitical picture spanning two ponds, dozens of countries and the credibility of the EU as a coherent and influential international actor.

Firstly, the arms embargo creates a schizophrenic, two-gear dynamic between the EU and China, where increased economic collaboration should be followed by higher levels of political trust between the two; an arms embargo is certainly not constructive to this end. Important undercurrents to these relations are brewing economic tensions that threaten to exacerbate the lack of political trust between Brussels and Beijing. Secondly is that the security of the whole of South Asia can be enhanced by lifting the arms embargo on China. For one, the neighbourhood is plagued by a number of conflict issues: Thailand and Cambodia, the two Koreas, China’s sovereignty disagreements with Japan and simmering conflict with India. The point here is that nobody has any interest in threatening Taiwan beyond political posturing and clanging weaponry, because the costs of war outweigh any benefits in this context. Conversely, removing the embargo would signal an increase in the trust between the EU and China, which may give Europe the needed leverage to delegitimize the U.S.-imposed embargo, while gaining more export customers and fostering cooperation through building in a political commitment to cooperation. The overarching idea here is to increase trust between governments – when two major players trust one another, the smaller ones are likely to follow.

First to address is a case of schizophrenic bilateral relations. China and the EU have a comprehensive agreement, dating from 1985, that defines the normative ground for relations between them, but there is added pressure to move beyond it and find a new equilibrium of relations. Since 1985, bilateral trade has grown in volume to over one hundred billion dollars, investment has expanded dramatically, and it can be said that in the short to medium term, economic integration is going to deepen. A symbolic entry of China in the EU is the brand new Great Wall Motors car assembly plant near Lovech, Bulgaria, intended to introduce the European consumer to the Chinese auto industry; the facility has a capacity to produce 50,000 cars annually, so it is by no means an insignificant investment.

Economic liberalization should be accompanied by the political will to increase trust between the EU and China. Lifting the arms embargo is significant as a symbol for that trust, because the benefits are numerous – increased investor confidence, easing the regime on rare earth metals, and the potential to lessen the barriers for travel.

Regional security can be benefited by dropping the arms embargo. Trust is at the core of the issue because Southeast Asia is already a tumultuous region and nobody gains anything by increasing the already tense atmosphere. Ending the embargo certainly might make China more influential when it gains access to European military technologies, but it is also predictable that an agreement would be codified to commit China to peace and cooperation. Beijing has no direct interest in throwing its military might around for one main reason: its doctrine of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries that is also reflected by its military policies.

A signal of increasing trust between China and the EU will do wonders for diffusing tensions in Southeast Asia. India recently admitted only European aircraft in a bid to modernize its air force and a potential purchase by China of similar hardware can realistically lay the groundwork for lasting peace between India and China by way of military interoperability and common regional security structures. Tying China into a commitment to peace as a criterion for lifting the arms embargo will also give less credence to the embargo imposed by the Americans, who can extract a similar bilateral commitment in turn.

On human rights and democracy, European powers have supported murderous dictators and regimes, the United States has a similar long history of violating human rights around the world and thus, neither has the moral high ground to lecture China on human rights . What is more, they are not essential for a society to be stable and function – many around the world do not have a concept of human rights, nor do they find them relevant to life. Asking the average African, Afghani, or Pakistani about human rights will elicit two reactions - either a sarcastic smirk or a sceptic eyebrow raise. Historically, China has not been democratic and human rights as we understand them are largely irrelevant to Chinese society – it operates according to values much different from those in the West.

We must think pragmatically about Europe’s arms embargo on China – the fundamental point is to build trust. Economic integration has to be coupled with political trust, because it can serve to ease tensions and increase cooperation across the board. Commitment to peace and cooperation is what that is needed – human rights and democracy is needless polemic.

Photo Source: seanb.murphy