News / Asia

Europe Divided Over China Arms Sales

European Commissioner for Competition Joaquin Almunia, who advocates allowing China to make private investments in their countries in return for Beijing's support during the Eurozone's debt crisis, Lisbon, 14 Jan 2011.
European Commissioner for Competition Joaquin Almunia, who advocates allowing China to make private investments in their countries in return for Beijing's support during the Eurozone's debt crisis, Lisbon, 14 Jan 2011.
Henry Ridgwell

Britain is on a collision course with the European Union over the sale of arms to China.  Since the Beijing government crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989, EU member states have been banned from selling goods that could be used by the Chinese military.

China’s new J-20 stealth fighter roars along the runway and takes to the skies, the maiden test-flight of a plane designed to rival the United States’ radar-eluding aircraft.

Images of the flight, leaked on the Internet and subsequently confirmed as genuine by the Beijing government, have focused attention on China’s military modernization.

The European Union banned the sale of military technology to China following the crackdown on dissidents in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But Alexander Neill of analyst group the Royal United Services Institute says China’s growing financial influence in Europe is starting to tell.

"EU member states certainly feel pressured by China given the economic contagion, which seems to be spreading through the EU at the moment,” Neill said. “Many national leaders, I am sure, will think twice about how they engage the Chinese on investment, which is essentially bailing them out of elements of their economic doldrums."

Beijing has just signed a series of multi-billion-dollar deals with European companies.  China says it is also prepared to buy up to $7.9 billion of Spanish government debt at a time of heightened fears over the future of the euro currency.

Many EU leaders, including the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, have suggested it is time the arms export ban to China was revised.

Britain, while welcoming its own slice of Chinese investment, is at odds with EU countries that want to repeal the embargo.

"The U.K.’s position remains exactly as it has been over the last few years, which is now is not the right time to lift the ban," Neill stated.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington earlier this month and sought to calm fears over China’s investment in its military.

He says China does not engage in arms races or pose a military threat to any country and will never seek hegemony or pursue an expansionist policy.

Despite military spending estimated at $78 billion in 2010, Alexander Neill says China’s armed forces still lag behind. "But there are areas of concern where China has managed to play catch-up with the United States,” he said. “Particularly in its high-tech and asymmetric capabilities."

China’s J-20 stealth fighter is an example of such high-tech advances.

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