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Debate: EU arms sales to China

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Revision as of 07:39, 15 July 2008

Should the European Union lift its ban on member states selling arms to China?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

Both the USA and the European Union have bans on arms sales to China. These were put in place in 1989, as part of the international reaction to the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In the sixteen years since the ban was imposed, China has experienced rapid growth and has become a very important part of the global economy, both importing and exporting goods worth many billions of dollars a year. It has also opened up to foreign investment and, as a recent member of the World Trade Organisation, is committed to further opening. Over the same period, China has also become more active diplomatically, participating more in global and regional bodies such as the United Nations. The Chinese leadership has called this increasing engagement China's "peaceful rise", although other nations worry about continuing territorial claims affecting relations with most of China's neighbours, as well as pressures from growing popular nationalism. The United States in particular is concerned about China's claim on Taiwan, which is regarded as a break-away province by the mainland, but which enjoys an unspoken promise of American support in case of an unprovoked Chinese invasion. In recent years China has spent a great deal on modernising its armed forces, buying advanced military equipment from Russia in particular, and much of this build-up appears to be designed to enable China to project its power outside its own borders. As China has become more important on the world stage, and a very important trading partner for Europe, it has lobbied hard for the EU arms ban to be lifted (Australia's similar ban was lifted in 1992, but there is no prospect of the United States doing so). France in particular has argued within the EU for removing the ban, pointing out that a 1998 code of conduct on weapons sales would ensure that European military technology did not flood into China. This position appeared to have widespread support from member states, including Germany, Italy and (at times) the U.K, although the European Parliament and public opinion in most member states remained strongly against change. It looked likely the ban would be repealed in mid-2005 but plans were put aside after strong American pressure and concern about China's attitude to Taiwan. Nonetheless, the issue appears likely to return and will remain controversial.

EU-China partnership: Is the EU developing a strategic partnership with China that might justify the EU lifting its ban?


Europe has a developing strategic partnership with China: Europe and China will soon be each other's largest trading partner, and as China's rapid growth continues it is playing an increasingly important part in the global economy and in international affairs. Clearly it is in the EU's interests to work together with this emerging superpower. Yet the arms ban forms a major obstacle to progress in this partnership and, after more than fifteen years, it is time to lift it. China has repeatedly said that it will never enjoy a normal trading relationship with the EU until the ban is lifted.


The idea of a "strategic partnership" with China is both vague and cause for concern: It is unclear what such a partnership would involve and questionable whether it is desirable. On one hand, by lifting the arms ban the EU will be showing that it favours stability over democracy and profit over principle. Other repressive regimes and would-be tyrants will surely take note. On the other hand it is unclear what actual harm there is to Europe from keeping the ban in place. Despite Chinese rhetoric about it damaging their trading relationship with the EU, it is not clear how European states are disadvantaged compared to other countries. As a WTO member China is committed to further market opening anyway, and as a member of the UN Security Council it is in its own interests to cooperate with others for mutual benefit.

Relevant symbol: Is the EU ban on arms sale a relevant symbol anymore?


The arms ban is an anachronism - only China, Myanmar and Zimbabwe are singled out by the EU in this way from all the regimes in the world. This is pointlessly offensive to the Chinese government and people, who see it as political discrimination against them, and it should be lifted.

China has changed over the past fifteen years, becoming more open to the world and more open domestically: For example it is experimenting with democratic elections at village level and talking of extending these to townships. It has also effectively scrapped the repressive one-child policy. Internationally China is a responsible member of the international community, as befits a permanent member of the UN Security Council. At the United Nations, although it occasionally abstains from votes, it very rarely threatens to use its veto power in the Security Council - unlike the USA, for example. Its "peaceful rise" can also be seen in its hosting of the six-nation talks over North Korea's nuclear programme. And China is increasingly willing to operate within regional diplomatic frameworks covering East Asia, SE Asia and Central Asia.


The European Union should maintain the ban as a continued expression of disapproval for the Tienanmen square massacre and its legacy in modern China: The arms ban was imposed for a reason - the massacre of students demonstrating for democracy and openness in 1989. Nothing China has done since shows it regrets its savage actions in Tiananmen Square - indeed many of the demonstrators are still in prison today. If the ban is lifted, the EU will be implying that it should never have placed the ban on arms sales in the first place, and signalling that China can do what it likes to its own people without fear of EU objections. Indeed, the next time that peaceful demonstrators are attacked by the armed forces in China, they may be able to do it with European weapons. Overall, China's human rights record is still very bad. It still hasn't ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is regularly criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for imprisoning political and religious activists without trial. This is not a state that should be rewarded with EU favours.

Strategic ban: Does a ban on arms sales consistent with the EU's strategic objectives?


The current arms ban is purely symbolic, as China is already able to buy a range of military items from Europe ($555 million worth in 2003) and the USA, which has a similar "ban" on weapons sales to China. Future sales will be regulated by a tough EU code of conduct which prevents military equipment being sold to any state which might use it for external aggression or internal repression. Such a code of conduct will be a much better guarantee that China is not sold arms unless EU states are sure they will not be misused.

Lifting the arms ban will not strengthen China militarily: Not only would sales be restricted by the new code of conduct, but China has also clearly stated that it does not actually wish to purchase more military equipment from Europe. Even if China was sold high-tech European equipment, this could even be beneficial as it would make China dependent on the EU for such items and make it less likely to pursue its own research and development programmes.


The arms ban is strategically effective in preventing the Chinese military from gaining access to the best modern technologies: A convincing code of conduct has yet to be drawn up, but even if it looks very tight, it has a major flaw. Unlike the arms ban, individual EU member states will be able to judge for themselves whether a proposed arms sale breaks the code. Past experience suggests that when exports are at stake, perhaps with the risk of job losses in an election year, then politicians interpret codes like this very loosely. This will be made worse by the thought of an EU state that if it refuses a particular military sale to China, then another member state will be more flexible.

China poses a threat to regional and international peace and should not be encouraged and helped by European arms sales: It has territorial disputes with most of its neighbours, particularly over oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. The regime has also encouraged an assertive nationalism, damaging relations with Japan, for example. Most seriously, China claims Taiwan, a pro-Western Chinese democracy, and is rapidly building up the kinds of military forces it would need for an assault on that island, as well as staging exercises designed to intimidate its people. Recently the Chinese parliament passed a law that force should be used against Taiwan if it declared formal independence. Quite apart from the principle of backing a repressive state against a democratic one, it is not in the EU's interests to make a war between two of its major trading partners more likely, especially as other powers such as the USA and perhaps Japan are then very likely to be drawn into the conflict.

Lifting the arms ban will strengthen China militarily: The US fears less the Chinese purchase of EU weaponry and armour, than that the regime will get hold of advanced communications and control systems, as well as high-technology guidance systems, night-vision equipment, etc. - all of which would make its existing military far more effective. Even if the EU is reluctant to sell such material to China, the possibility will give the Chinese leverage in negotiations with existing suppliers like Israel and Russia, who will feel under more pressure to sell China their most modern technology. In time, China's ability to "reverse engineer" high-technology equipment will also boost their own military research and development programmes.

Acquiring arms - Can China acquire all the arms it desires from other sources than the EU anyway, making an ban irrelevant and unnecessary?


In a global marketplace, if the EU states don't sell China arms, others will: Russia and Israel already sell China much high-tech military material. As Israel is a key American ally, US criticism of Europe over lifting this ban is particularly unfair. It is in Europe's economic interest to gain part of the huge Chinese market and so safeguard European jobs. And if European arms industries cannot find export markets, their production for domestic military forces is simply not enough to support the cost of research and development, so our indigenous arms sector may collapse.


Even if it was in Europe's interest to sell arms to China, the damage from upsetting the United States by lifting the arms ban would be much greater: This is partly because America takes the human rights situation in China more seriously, but mostly because the USA has a major commitment to the freedom of Taiwan. If China did attack the island, America would almost certainly intervene. As the US State Department has said in relation to lifting the ban, "We don't want to see a situation where American forces face European technologies." Congress has already threatened to restrict technology transfers to Europe if the ban is removed (for fear of this, BAE Systems, one of Europe's largest defence firms, has already said that it would not sell to China even if the ban was lifted).

Democratizing: Is lifting the ban a route to cooperation between the West and China, and the a route to its democratization in this way?


Cooperating with China is the best way to gain influence with the regime in order to promote democracy and human rights, engage it internationally, etc. The Chinese respond very badly to being publicly lectured or threatened, but they will listen to those friendly nations who have earned their trust in ways like these. Lifting the ban is an investment in the future of the Europe-China relationship, and could be of benefit to the whole world, not just the EU.


The European Union is taking a big risk in proposing to lift the arms ban: Firstly China may appear to be liberalising in some ways today, but there is no guarantee what an EU-armed China may look like in ten years time. The rise of nationalism as a way for the government to retain popular legitimacy, and recent moves against Taiwan are both worrying signs. Secondly, the EU is prepared to make this huge concession without anything meaningful in return. Given the desire of the Chinese leadership for the ban to go, Europe should at least use it as a major bargaining counter and make it conditional upon significant and real changes in both domestic and external behaviour.



  • This House believes the European Union should lift its ban on member states selling arms to China
  • This House would sell arms to China
  • This House would make friends with the dragon
  • This House believes Europe should form a strategic partnership with China

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