Should we continue to enforce the arms embargo on China? The debate has been gaining momentum recently among diplomats, politicians, and military leaders. For now, even as dissenting voices grow louder, the European governments intend to stay the course set in 1989, when their predecessors unanimously decided to forbid the sale of military equipment to Beijing.
Enacted after the violent repression of the demonstrations in Tian An Men Square, the embargo had a dual purpose. First, it was a firm condemnation of the Chinese use of heavy tanks against peaceful demonstrators. Such a blatant violation of human rights – a matter of non-negotiable principle – required a strong, multilateral message to make the point that certain issues cannot be resolved with compromise.
Second, Europe established a strict political code of conduct. The individual states retained a degree of discretionary power when dealing with China, but the margin was strict and tightly controlled. Twenty-three years later, the embargo is still in force, but the international political arena has changed dramatically, emboldening those who would like to see the measure scaled back. Supporters of lifting the embargo make the point that China has already been punished enough. China remains globally condemned for the violence in Tian An Men, and the embargo has prevented China from becoming a military power, at least in proportion to its economic success.
Those in favor of lifting sanctions argue that keeping the embargo is a pointless humiliation for China, putting it in a club on the outskirts of the international community along with rogue states like Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar. Staying the course would seem disingenuous, particularly in a moment when Europe is looking eastwards for a solution to their debt crisis. Russia, already China’s first source for armament, would benefit further, and loosening restrictions could show some sense in an incoherent, outdated policy.
The reality is that arms sales to China have never stopped; loopholes in the embargo have been exploited by the French to continue making deals disguised by murky procedures and terminology. Unsurprisingly, France leads the negotiations to lift sanctions, along with a few other southern European countries. The UK, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other east European states stand fast on the other side of the table. They are supported by the US, Japan, and of course, Taiwan. Supporters of the embargo argue that since it is impossible to contain China economically, it should at least be contained militarily. They all fear China’s expansion in the Pacific Ocean, after almost seven decades of US-led equilibrium, and lifting sanctions would give China’s military a shot in the arm, allowing it to purchase new weapons systems and freeing up precious resources that are currently dedicated to research and development. Embargo supporters sustain that the economic relationship with China would not be compromised if the restrictions were to stay in place, since The Middle Kingdom has certainly flourished over 23 years in spite of them. Investment and trade between Europe and China has skyrocketed, and therefore good relations with China are not mutually exclusive with a position based on strong moral principles.
China made an unsuccessful bid to lift the embargo in 2010, and is now caught between two internal positions. Its internationally sensitive faction wants to continue negotiating, to pursue their goal with dialogue without igniting more tension. With China’s economy slowing down, it would be inappropriate to hurt the good relationship with Europe. The nationalists, on the other hand, insist that keeping the embargo is a provocative offence deserving of a strong reaction, limited of course to politics and diplomacy. The margins for mediation are getting thinner and it looks as though it will be ever more difficult to find a solution that satisfies all parties, even for Beijing, where pragmatism and realism were always the pole star for making a decision.