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European Union Considers Lifting Arms Embargo on China

A European Union consensus to lift its arms embargo on China this spring appears to have broken down due to pressure from the United States and a new Chinese threat against Taiwan. Analysts say, however, that it is only a matter of time before Europe ends its ban on arms sales. Leta Hong Fincher has more.

At a recent European Union summit in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said that European leaders are leaning toward lifting an embargo on arms sales to China.

"[We] think it is unfair to maintain sanctions on China so many years after the reason why it was cast," said Javier Solana.

The European Union imposed its arms embargo in 1989, after China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. Analysts say that most European leaders believe it is time to reconsider the sanctions imposed 15 years ago, especially since EU policy on arms exports would prevent many types of technology from being sold to China.

Charles Kupchan, head of Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C., says that EU leaders also want to incorporate China in their new geopolitical strategy.

"The French and the Germans in particular are looking to improve ties to Beijing, to get the EU more engaged diplomatically in East Asia. And lifting the arms embargo is part of that more ambitious geopolitical strategy," said Charles Kupchan.

But divisions within the European Union appear to have delayed an original plan to lift the arms embargo by June.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently said on British television that China's adoption of a new law threatening Taiwan against independence has created what he called a "difficult political environment."

And President Bush has told European leaders that ending the arms embargo on China could harm U.S. national security and undermine efforts to force China to improve its human rights record. Some in the U.S. Congress have threatened trade retaliation against Europe if it lifts the embargo.

Analysts say that some EU leaders want to avoid a serious setback in their relations with the United States, especially after President Bush reached out to them during his trip to Europe in February.

Simon Serfaty is a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

"The Europeans are in a bit of a spot now. I think they were sensitive to what President Bush did late last month. They do want an improvement in the transatlantic relationship. At the same time, they cannot be made [to look] as if they are being blackmailed with every single decision made by the Bush administration," said Simon Serfaty.

Mr. Serfaty argues that the issue of arms sales to China comes at a crucial time of rapprochement between Europe and the United States. He says both sides are watching each other carefully to see if they can be trusted partners.

"To what extent do we in the United States trust the Europeans, that they will do what needs to be done in order not to worsen conditions in Asia? And to what extent do the Europeans believe that America will do what needs to be done in order to compensate for whatever losses the Europeans would suffer by not opening up to the Chinese," he said.

Analysts say the EU debate over arms sales is also part of an effort to integrate different visions of European identity.

Mr. Kupchan says that in the past, Europe conceived of itself in parallel with the United States and did not want to oppose US leaders on key geopolitical matters.

"Since the rift over Iraq, there have been voices in Europe that call for an EU identity that defines itself in opposition to the United States, that goes off and creates a second center of power. And this issue of reaching out to China, even though the United States is against it, plays right into that fundamental difference of opinion about the EU's future," said Charles Kupchan.

Mr. Kupchan says it is only a matter of time before the EU arms embargo on China will be lifted. The deeper challenge, analysts say, is how to keep the issue from damaging transatlantic relations.