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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
EU Retains China Arms Embargo

Wade Boese

The European Union Dec. 8 rejected a Chinese bid to end a 15-year-old arms embargo, delighting the United States. Yet, Beijing’s disappointment and Washington’s satisfaction could be short-lived as the embargo’s eventual end appears likely.

In a joint statement issued at the end of the EU-China summit held at The Hague, the 25-member EU declared its “political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo.” China “welcomed the positive signal” but also stated that the embargo “should be immediately removed.”

The EU’s main decision-making body Dec. 17 indicated it wanted to make a final decision on the embargo within the next several months. The result “should not be an increase of arms exports from EU Member States to China, neither in quantitative nor qualitative terms,” the European Council stated.

With a wholesale military modernization program underway, Beijing has pressed the EU to drop its prohibition on arms sales originally imposed in reaction to the Chinese government’s ruthless 1989 crackdown on peaceful demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. Beijing contends its human rights record has improved and labels the embargo an anachronism of the Cold War.

Some European capitals share Beijing’s view that the embargo is outdated and an impediment to improving ties between Europe and China. Paris and Madrid are lobbying hard for abolishment of the embargo, as is German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose position is not supported by his own Social Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, one European diplomat from a country favoring the embargo told Arms Control Today Dec. 15 that momentum is building for the eventual lifting of the embargo, but when that will happen “is uncertain.”

U.S. officials expressed similar resignation. In a Dec. 15 interview with Arms Control Today, a Department of State official said the United States, which also bans arms sales to China, was “pleased” with the summit’s conclusion, but conceded the issue “is not a problem that is going to go away.” A congressional staffer interviewed the same day predicted a European reversal could come in a matter of months.

The State Department official argued that the host of summit agreements between the European Union and China, including commitments to cooperate on nonproliferation and arms control issues, reveals that it is “possible to have a good relationship with China and still have an arms embargo.” The official further warned that a renewed arms trade relationship between China and European countries could prompt the United States to impose greater restrictions on arms and technology sold to Europe. “Congress will spank [the Europeans] on this,” the official added.

The congressional staffer affirmed this assertion. Concerns about U.S. technology leaking to China via Europe would likely sour congressional support for cross-Atlantic ventures on major weapons systems, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the staffer said. An EU decision to lift the embargo, according to the staffer, would most likely produce an “overreaction by Congress.”

U.S. support for preserving the embargo reflects unease with the possibility that Beijing could turn the weapons against its own people or Taiwan, which China covets and the United States has pledged to help defend. Additional qualms stem from China’s past proliferation record of selling arms to purchasers hostile to the United States.

Some EU countries say U.S. fears are exaggerated and that waiving the embargo will not result in a splurge of European arms sales to China. European weapons deals, they argue, will be constrained by a 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports that sets out criteria—such as a potential arms buyer’s human rights record—that are supposed to be taken into consideration before any export occurs. U.S. critics counter that the code, which EU members are considering revising, is nonbinding and not much of an obstacle to determined sellers.