It has been five years since the EU last seriously considered lifting the arms embargo on China. Now the topic is back in vogue: last week, the Spanish foreign minister Angel Miguel Moratinos announced that his country's EU presidency was willing to open the question once again.
The announcement has caused quite a stir in diplomatic circles – not least because the reason why the ban was imposed in the first place was to condemn China’s human rights abuse at the Tian’anmen square 20 years ago.
With the execution of a British national, the harsh sentence given to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, and the controversy over ‘cyber’ human rights abuse in the Google affair, we would be hard pressed to find reasons to praise Beijing for its recent human rights record.
Two questions arise. Why did Madrid decide to raise the issue at all? And why now? Spain’s representatives have consistently pursued a policy of good diplomatic relations with China. Lifting the ban may be driven by economic considerations, too. CASA, the prominent Spanish aerospace company, would certainly welcome the opening of Chinese defence market – a boost in arms exports to China could positively affect Spain’s bilateral trade deficit.
As to the question of timing, it is worth reminding that the EU presidencies of Sweden and the Czech Republic were fierce critics of China. Now, the Spanish presidency may have had the last chance of getting the issue back on the agenda, given the fact that the Lisbon Treaty shifts the external roles of the presidency into the hands of Lady Ashton, the new EU “foreign minister.”
But the level of goodwill towards Beijing in European capitals has plummeted over the past few years following the realisation that the Chinese had no intention of ‘yielding’ on certain core issues for the Europeans.
According to a French diplomat, France will certainly not support the lifting of the ban this time around.
While some in the European Commission would like the arms embargo to be lifted before the EU-China summit next October – stressing that the existing EU code of conduct on arms sales will act as a safeguard – it seems that the Spanish declaration is no more than a temporary fad.
It appears indeed that the issue has not been discussed at all between member states’ representatives neither at a working group level in the Council of the EU nor at the Political and Security Committee – the Spanish ambassador to the EU himself being out of the loop.
But even if the EU managed to reach unanimity on this issue, what sort of benefits could it expect? The reaction of Washington would certainly be negative, especially given the current downturn in US-China relations. Even the moderate Obama administration would most likely interpret the transfer of European military know-how as a disruption of the delicate balance of powers in East Asia.
To make it worthwhile for the EU, China would have to offer a substantial compromise. The embargo is one of the last power cards the EU can play vis-à-vis China and without concessions the trade-off does not pay off.
It would only benefit the EU arms producers, at least for some time. But European defence companies had better remember the fate of the Russians. The case of the Chinese J-11B fighter, whose close resemblance to the Russian Su-27 jet provoked a trade dispute between the countries, should serve as a clear warning.