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EUROPE-CHINA: A Push to End Arms Embargo, a Thorn for U.S.

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Apr 20 2005 (IPS) - The plan of several European governments, led by France and Germany, to lift the ban on exporting weapons to the People’s Republic of China is a new bone of contention within the European Union, and between the bloc and the United States – similar to rift about the invasion of Iraq two years ago.

According to independent analysts, the issue is also a litmus test for Europe’s ability to conceive and carry out sovereign foreign policy, independent from restrictions from Washington and imposed through U.S. allies in Europe.

"Those opposing the lifting of the European weapons embargo against China are trying to restrict the European capacity to act internationally according to its own interests," Pascal Boniface, director of the Paris-based Institute for International Relations and Strategy (IRIS), told IPS.

For several weeks, both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have been insisting that the EU should lift the embargo on weapons exports to China, imposed in 1989 after the government crackdown on the student revolt in Tiananmen Square in June that year.

"The embargo is superfluous," Schroeder said Thursday during a plenary session of the German parliament, the Bundestag. Schroeder stated before the German deputies that today’s China has no resemblance to the regime that brutally repressed the student demonstrations of 1989.

In praising "impressive Chinese economic growth", and recalling that Germany is economically highly dependent on exports, Schroeder underlined that a special relationship with China is strategically beneficial for Germany.

Chirac has been making similar claims, both in Paris and abroad. In an interview with the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in late March in Tokyo, the French president described the Chinese call for an end to the embargo as "legitimate".

Civilian industries from France and Germany have in recent months obtained billion-dollar contracts from China.

The German and French efforts to lift the embargo have the support of Spain, and to a lesser extent, of Britain and Belgium. But they have provoked angry reactions from numerous European politicians from all ideological sides, as well from commentators, who appear to be echoing the warnings against lifting the embargo expressed by U.S. officials.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called the eventual lifting of the European embargo "a mistake" that would inhibit "the opportunities and the integration (between the United States and Europe) that we have seen develop."

If someday "European equipment helped kill American men and women in conflict, that would not be good for the (U.S.-European) relationship," Zoellick said in Brussels on Apr. 5.

After such remarks, the domestic European opposition against lifting the embargo appeared to gain momentum. On Apr. 14, the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority for a non-binding resolution urging the EU to keep the arms embargo in place.

While in France there is practically no opposition to lifting the embargo, in Germany the ruling coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, defend contrary positions.

While the SPD support Chancellor Schroeder’s call for ending the embargo, the Green Party’s leader and foreign minister Joseph Fischer, in his speech to the Bundestag’s plenary session last Thursday, set as condition for such a European move that the Chinese government must sign international conventions defending human rights.

The debate raises several questions: first, whether the continued arms ban is sustainable and indeed compatible with an emerging strategic partnership between the EU and China, and with relations between Europe and the United States. Second, how to assess human rights progress in China and whether or not a sustained arms ban would advance that objective. Third, what would be the security implications of lifting the arms export ban.

In the opinion of IRIS director Boniface, the opposition to ending the export ban seems to ignore that it has not contributed to improving human rights in China, nor has it hindered U.S. allies, such as Israel, from delivering military material to Beijing.

"According to figures of the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), between 1990 and 1996, in the immediate years after the embargo was imposed, some 5.3 billion U.S. dollars in weapons were delivered to China, especially by the Soviet Union, later Russia, and Israel," Boniface said.

Indeed, a report by the GAO from June 1998, titled "GAO on U.S. and Euro military exports to China", established that almost 90 percent of all weapons deliveries to China came from the former Soviet Union, Russia, and Israel, euphemistically hidden behind the description "Middle East".

Several studies suggest that China has bought highly sensitive U.S. military technology, including missile-related imports, through Israel.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a private U.S.-based organisation analysing weapons transactions around the world, Israeli military cooperation with China has strained its relations with the United States.

"For example, in the early 1990s, reports surfaced that Israel had secretly transferred information on the U.S. Patriot missile system to China, in violation of Israel’s promise to the United States not to transfer the Patriot technology to any third country. Although both China and Israel denied the allegations, U.S. government sources concluded that it was almost certain that a transfer of technology (though not physical equipment) had taken place," an NTI report on Chinese military imports says.

China is reportedly using the Patriot technology to improve its surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and to develop counter measures against the Patriot for its ballistic and cruise missiles, NTI adds.

Israel has also purportedly supplied China with U.S. cruise missile technology. Specifically, Israel has allegedly assisted China with the development of its YF-12A, YJ-62, and YJ-92 cruise missiles.

In July 2000, and only after the U.S. government exerted pressure, Israel backed out of a deal with China, through which Israel would have outfitted three Chinese Il-76 planes with Phalcon radars, another U.S. military technology.

NTI says the United States believed the deal would tip the strategic balance against Taiwan. Chinese authorities responded harshly and demanded the return of their deposit as well as compensation. In early 2002, Israel agreed to pay a reported 300 million dollars to put an end to the dispute with China over the cancellation.

Since the annulment of the Phalcon radar deal, Israel has assisted China in other areas, including the development of the HQ-9/FT-2000, a surface-to-air missile, which also would use U.S. seeker technology. It has also worked with China in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). In July 2002, China deployed Israeli "Harpy" anti-radar drones in military exercises in Fujian province.

Nor has the embargo hindered European governments from increasingly delivering military technology to China. European weapons exports to China doubled between 2002 and 2003, up to some 520 million dollars, according to official figures.

Boniface said the end of the European embargo would not change the present balance of power in Asia. "The Chinese military budget represents barely one tenth of those of Japan and the United States," Boniface told IPS.

Measured per capita, the Chinese military expenses are even smaller, making them practically insignificant compared to Japanese and U.S. expenditures, he said.

However, he added, the Chinese National People’s Congress passage in mid-March of the so-called "Anti-Secession Law", which authorises China to use force against Taiwan in case of a unilateral declaration of independence by the island’s government, was a blow to the European plan to lift the arms trade embargo.

"But I don’t see how China could actually use military force against Taiwan on the eve of the Olympic Games in 2008," Boniface observed.

 
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