Last month, I was in Sweden meeting with think tank and government officials. The main purpose of the visit was to discuss EU-U.S. policies toward Iran, especially the effectiveness of the international sanctions seeking to change Tehran’s nuclear policies. But some of my Swedish interlocutors, like other Europeans, also raised the issue of the ineffectiveness of the arms sanctions towards China as a reason for their skepticism regarding the Iranian sanctions.
Their arguments should be looked at, but first it’s important to offer a little background on the issue. The killing of many unarmed protesters involved in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and elsewhere in China provoked international outrage and led many countries to adopt sanctions against Beijing, including an embargo on the sale of weapons. The EU declaration establishing an embargo is simply one sentence in a collective statement: “In the present circumstances the European Council thinks it necessary to adopt the following measures…interruption by the member states of the community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China.”
Since then, the EU arms embargo has been seen by all as more of a symbolic act of protest than a tool for actually changing Beijing’s behavior. Technically, EU members aren’t even legally forbidden from selling military items to China. However, the 1989 EU (then the European Community) declaration is a political commitment, and EU governments are supposed to uphold the spirit of this declaration. The constraints on arms exports don’t aim to inflict economic punishment, but rather are designed to send a strong message about European values. Most disputes between the EU and China still concern human rights, which remains the single most significant stumbling block between the two parties.
Yet there’s no universal understanding of what the embargo entails in practice. Each EU member interprets the embargo in terms of their national laws, decision making processes, and regulations. Since the EU lacks strong foreign policy institutions, the arms embargo against China is best seen as a collection of national EU arms embargoes. As a result, the EU collective stance lacks coherence or means of enforcement.
Since late 2003, France has sustained a campaign calling for lifting the embargo. At times, other countries – notably Spain and Greece – have supported repeal. The United Kingdom has consistently opposed lifting the embargo in public, though reports indicate that in private, U.K. diplomats have been more flexible. Some of the EU’s new members from the former Soviet bloc have meanwhile joined with Britain on human rights grounds, remembering the horrors they suffered under Communist rule.
But proponents of repealing the arms embargo have been pushing their case. They note, for example, that the embargo complicates the EU’s relations with China and partially negates EU efforts to develop a strategic partnership with Beijing in cooperation of a variety of goals. Chinese representatives for their part consider the embargo degrading since it puts China in the same category as other EU-sanctioned countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar. PRC documents repeatedly call on the EU to repeal it.