With the annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war that Russia unleashed upon Ukraine, Paris was pressured to cancel the sale of its two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships which it had built for Moscow. France’s long awaited and financially difficult decision marked the beginning of yet another major market that European weaponry producers will have to shun, at least in the foreseeable future. The other significant potential customer is the People’s Republic of China, which has been subject to the EU’s arms embargo for a quarter of a century. The cancellation of the Mistral deal was applauded in a number of European capitals, as well as in the United States. At the same time, it may raise concerns in other parts of the world, because it could potentially prompt European manufacturers to explore other markets for its products.
As reported by the Taiwan based China Times, even though China already has plans to develop its own amphibious assault ship, it may still purchase the two French vessels, originally intended for Russia, as models to copy. The report was speculative and it was triggered by the mid-May visit of the French Navy, including a Mistral-class ship, to Shanghai. Although the scenario described by the Taiwanese news outlet is highly unlikely, it does make the question of the future of the EU arms embargo on China increasingly relevant.
The arms embargo was imposed on China by the European Council on June 27th 1989, shortly after the crackdown of the Tiananmen protests. It took the form of a political declaration, not a legally binding document, hence different Member States may interpret the embargo in different ways. The Council recognizes several kinds of criteria that a country of final destination must fulfill in order to be an eligible procurer. These include: respect of human rights, the potential risk of using the proposed export against another country, and the risk of reverse engineering. Just given the three examples mentioned above, it is clear that China does not qualify. For reasons that need no explanation, it ranks poorly in the Human Rights Index. Its Anti-Secession Law indicates that it reserves its right to “employ non-peaceful means” against Taiwan, should Beijing conclude that “possibilities for a peaceful re-unification should be completely exhausted.” China is also the world’s hub for reversed engineering, which often tends to be overlooked.
Opponents of the arms embargo believe that it encourages China to develop its own domestic military, rather than rely on imports. This argument misses the point, however, because the idea of “copyright” is commonly interpreted in China as “copy is right.” Therefore, any sale of advanced arms is tantamount to a technology transfer, which will further assist Beijing in the development of its own domestic military sector. Clearly, the Russians seem to be aware of this fact because when they agreed to sell their latest Sukhoi-35S combat aircraft to the Chinese, they demanded that the deal includes a minimum of 48 pieces in order to limit the losses caused by the unintended, but inevitable technology transfer, as reported by The Economist.
Despite the risks mentioned above, there have been calls for lifting of the EU arms embargo against China from both the Chinese, which is not surprising, but also from the European side. In 2004, then French President Jacques Chirac said: “We will try to get the EU to lift as soon as possible an embargo which is of another time and which does not correspond any more to the reality of the situation.” Similar remarks were made by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In the meantime, following intense lobbying carried out by Taiwan, the European Parliament adopted a number of resolutions, opposing the Franco-German initiative mostly citing human rights and security concerns. Given that the lifting of the embargo requires all the EU Member States to support the notion, it never came to fruition, as a number of European capitals sided with the United States.
Officials of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have recently told this author that they consider Washington’s adamant position on the arms embargo against China the most significant factor in curtailing a possible revision of EU policy. They underscore that the lifting of the embargo will not happen primarily because of pressure from the US. However, one might argue that the case of the China led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) illustrates that such an approach might be nothing more than wishful thinking. Despite Washington’s efforts and the fact that it considers the AIIB to be a challenge to the U.S.-led Bretton Woods system, America’s most prominent European Allies, including the United Kingdom, decided to pursue their own economic and geopolitical interests by joining the “Chinese bank.”
There are other arguments, which make the lifting of the arms embargo a highly unlikely option though. First of all, as mentioned above, the formal decision would require a unanimous decision of all the EU Member States and it’s only the major arms manufacturers (such as France and Germany), that would see substantial economic benefits. For as long as the United Kingdom, another major European arms producer, does not decide to leave the EU, it constitutes a significant counterweight to any potential pressure on those Member States, who might be reluctant to do so.
Secondly, the geopolitical situation in Asia-Pacific has changed significantly since the mid-2000’s. Given China’s Navy’s provocative behavior in the East China Sea and the land reclamation activities conducted by the Middle Kingdom in the South China Sea, it is clear that Beijing’s ambitions have been growing ever since. Also, the geopolitical situation in Europe has undergone dramatic changes, following the Russian-sponsored conflict in Ukraine. Unlike the US, the EU Member States do not have a military presence and direct security interests in the Asia-Pacific region, but providing China with advanced weapons that it could potentially use (or threaten to use) against the United States, is a much bigger deal than participation in the creation of the AIIB. Going up against Washington by lifting the arms embargo on China would constitute a political crisis in transatlantic relations. Countries such as France, which do not face an existential threat from the outside and do not feel that their security relies on the US, might be willing to risk a diplomatic faceoff with Washington for economic reasons (as they did in the mid-2000’s). However, a number of EU Member States find themselves in a much more unfortunate geopolitical position and they will not antagonize the United States, especially in the wake of the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Finally, the EU arms embargo on China is not a legally binding document, but a political statement with a fair amount of room for interpretation. This has enabled France, Germany and the United Kingdom to provide Beijing’s armed forces with dual-use technology such as helicopters and submarine engines. According to some estimations, such arms sales from the EU make up for a total of 18% of China’s imports (figure for 2013). European exporters would have a hard time justifying sales of assault ships, such as the French Mistrals, but they can still do business providing Beijing with dual use technology, without raising unnecessary attention, with the embargo in force.
Jakub Piasecki ( 謝佳倫 – Xie Jia-lun ) – Graduate of the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. From 2009 to 2012, he worked for the European Parliament as a Press Officer and Policy Advisor on China. Following close to four years of service at the EP, he moved to Taipei, where he completed a Visiting Fellowship at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he conducts research on Taiwan’s relations with the European Union. His areas of expertise cover Taiwan and cross-strait relations. Fluent in English and Chinese