Heading Off European Arms to China


Mar 2, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on March 2, 2005.

On a trip to mend fences with Europe, President Bush highlighted U.S.-European friction when he said at a news conference Feb. 22 in Brussels that there was “deep concern” in the United States about the European Union's plans to lift its arms embargo against China. While the EU's plans have not attracted widespread attention in the United States, the issue has enormous consequences for the future of transatlantic relations.

Although EU officials have stated their willingness to address Washington's long-standing concern that ending the arms embargo would accelerate Chinese military modernization, little progress has been made on resolving the issue in way that is satisfactory to both Americans and Europeans.

One way to move the United States and Europe closer together would be for both sides to now use the arms embargo debate to transform the EU's 1998 code of conduct governing the arms trade into a robust, comprehensive, and legally relevant document. Such a transformation, if fully embraced by the EU, would help address Washington's legitimate concerns about weapons and related technology transfers to the Chinese military. Renovating the code of conduct also provides a mechanism for managing future tensions.

U.S. diplomacy has intensely focused during the past year on persuading EU nations to maintain the current embargo. American diplomats argue that lifting the embargo would send the wrong signal to China about its human-rights record and would help China's defense industry and uniformed military at precisely the time that both are poised to make major advances in their capabilities. Some European military-equipment and dual-use technologies could uniquely assist Chinese military modernization, offering qualitatively better niche capabilities than Russian or Israeli arms.

But the current U.S. strategy overlooks the embargo's major limitation — it is too weak to stem military trade with China even today. Since 1989, only a handful of the EU's 25 member states have stated their interpretation of the arms ban, and even then they have been vague. Under most interpretations, the embargo covers only “major weapons platforms” such as aircraft or naval vessels and “lethal items” such as machine guns and missiles. It does not cover weapons subsystems or militarily relevant dual-use items such as advanced machine tools.

As a result, EU nations have sold militarily significant goods to the Chinese military under the embargo. The engines for China's new Song-class diesel submarine and its newest 054-class frigates are reportedly German and French, respectively. In the late 1990s, the United Kingdom sold China sets of naval aviation radars and France sold Crotale ship-to-air missiles and launchers. European nations have also supplied China's defense industry with advanced production equipment.

The EU's 1998 current code of conduct has not functioned as an effective backup mechanism to the embargo because it is not legally binding, comprehensive in scope or transparent. In addition, its reporting requirements are weak and inconsistent.

Given the EU's emerging strategic partnership with China, such militarily relevant trade is likely to grow in scope and value, regardless of the existence of the embargo. According to EU data, under both the embargo and the code of conduct the value of licenses for weapons exports actually increased from 54 million euros in 2001 to more than 400 million euros in 2003.

American policymakers need to broaden their negotiating efforts with the EU. Such efforts should include at least three steps to improve the code of conduct.

The first is to improve the code's legal standing and enforcement mechanism, as advocated in a recent European Parliament report by Raul Romeva Rueda. This should include transforming the code of conduct into an EU common position and then enforcing it with corresponding export-control legislation in member states. Absent the existing embargo, these steps would help to reestablish a norm against military-related exports to China.

The second step is to expand the code's scope to include specific military equipment and technologies. If the arms embargo is lifted, European governments and defense firms are not likely to sell weapons or platforms directly to China. Rather, the most serious U.S. concern should be the export of subsystems and related equipment and technologies for missiles, stealth systems, satellites, command and control capabilities, naval platforms and military aircraft. The United States and Europe should agree on a list of prohibited weapons and technologies in these areas.

A third step is to standardize the code of conduct's reporting requirements and increase transparency of arms sales to China. EU countries should provide data for each recipient country on the number of licenses issued, the value of licenses issued, the value of arms exports and the number of license refusals. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes that France and Germany do not provide data on the value of arms exports and the Netherlands and Portugal do not submit data on the value of licenses issued.

The costs of failing to manage the arms-embargo issue are significant and rising. Lifting the embargo without a viable code of conduct will likely provoke a backlash in the U.S. Congress, as noted in a Republican Policy Committee report headed by Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. European firms that sell sensitive military-use technology or weapons systems to China may be prohibited from participating in defense-related programs with the United States.

More important, failing to manage the arms embargo will hurt political efforts to rebuild the transatlantic relationship. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, transatlantic relations are at one of their lowest points in 60 years. As Bush noted in his recent inaugural address: “All that we seek to achieve in the world requires that America and Europe remain close partners.” Resolving the emerging crisis over the EU arms embargo is critical to sustaining that vision.

Medeiros and Jones are political scientists at the Rand Corporation.

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