Japan, US foil Beijing push to end EU arms embargo
Greg Torode and Minnie Chan
Japan and the United States appear to have thwarted a fresh push by China to end the European Union's long-standing embargo on arms sales to the PLA - for now at least.
Speculation had mounted in Europe that an end to the embargo, which dates back to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, was possible early this year following a charm offensive by Beijing and a leaked EU report saying that the issue was a 'major impediment' to ties.
The document from EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton also called for the EU to 'design a way forward', saying the lifting of the embargo on all lethal weapons 'could happen very quickly'.
But EU officials and member states said the speculation was premature given fresh signs of internal reluctance - as well as a discreet but forceful lobbying drive by the EU's international partners, Japan and the US.
Japan warned that regional security could be at risk if the ban was ended, despite both France and current EU president Spain pushing publicly for arms sales. Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, said Japan followed the European situation with 'much interest', saying it carried 'important possible implications for Japan and the East Asian security environment'.
'We expect the EU to take a cautious and responsible approach.'
One EU official said there were no concrete plans and acknowledged Japanese and US concern. 'It is something that obviously is looked at and reviewed but it does need consensus among all 27-members of the EU, and it is becoming very clear that that consensus is just not there, nor is there a clear timetable.'
In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the embargo 'severely affected political trust between the two sides'.
'China's position on the lifting of the embargo has been consistent. The EU's embargo was a product from 20 years ago; it has severely affected political trust between two sides, and is completely out of sync with the current comprehensive, strategic partnership between China and the EU,' the spokesman said.
'[We urge the] EU to lift the arms embargo to China immediately and unconditionally, and it will be benefiting [for] Sino-EU relations.'
The Chinese and EU officials' remarks come as some individual members have made their opposition clear in recent weeks.
German Minister of State Cornelia Pieper said last month that Germany welcomed full EU-China normalisation but did not agree to end the embargo now. She gave two conditions - a lasting relaxation of cross-strait tension and sustained improvement in human rights. She noted big developments since 1989 but warned of 'stagnation and even negative developments' in the past two years.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said Britain did not think the time was right and noted a lack of consensus in the EU, but it should 'rightly remain under review'.
But Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based naval expert, said there were two key reasons the EU might scrap the arms ban this year.
'First, China bought a lot of EU government debts, which would help them to deal with the current financial crisis as well as prevent the collapse of the euro,' Song said.
His comments follow a tour of Europe by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang last month that saw Beijing commit to buying a reported Euro6 billion (HK$63.53 billion) worth of bonds from a cash-strapped Spain and big contracts with car manufacturers Volkswagen and Daimler.
'[President] Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States last month further stabilised Sino-US relations. It was because Hu affirmed Washington's leading role in the world, which might mean that the Obama administration would stop pressuring EU allies on this [embargo] issue,' Song said.
While some European reports noted a lack of strong public US comments on the issue, a State Department official confirmed that Washington remained opposed to ending the EU's embargo.
'The US remains in close contact with the EU and other European officials on the issue of our respective arms embargoes on China,' the official said. 'The US continues to emphasise that the lifting of the arms embargoes is not warranted on either human rights or security grounds.'
Privately, EU officials said they were aware of a variety of Japanese concerns - including fears about dual-use technology helping to quieten China's rapidly expanding submarine fleet. They were also worried about existing moves to obtain technology even without the ban being lifted - putting imports through shelf companies in third countries, for example.
'There is a sense that it is not just major arms deals that worry them, but a sudden flurry of hi-tech deals that could rapidly improve Chinese capabilities,' one EU diplomat said.
But Song noted the EU could provide matching rather than cutting edge technology, as no EU country could match the military-industrial might of the US or Russia.
Retired PLA general Xu Guangyu said the embargo had helped China stand on its own feet in terms of military technology.
'Our military research and development level would not be so efficient if there was not the arms embargo. We should say 'thank you' to the EU and the US,' he said.
Zhang Xiaojing , director of Remin University's Centre for European Studies, said Beijing did not have high expectations that the ban would be lifted.
'Beijing doesn't care about it now as the importance of the move is just like a political judgment or status,' he said. 'Actually, we have had some small-scale arms deals with some EU countries through other channels over the past 10 years.'
Additional reporting by Ng Yuk-hang