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Q&A: China arms embargo row

The European Union is discussing the lifting of its arms embargo against China. Arms sales to China would then come under a Code of Conduct governing all EU arms exports. The move is opposed by the United States.

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Why does the EU have an arms embargo on China?

The embargo was imposed in 1989 after the repression of democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The EU felt it should send China a strong signal of disapproval.

It decided, among other measures, on the "interruption by the member states of the community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China."

Why is the EU likely to lift the embargo?

A number of member states, led by France and Germany, feel that the embargo is out of date. Circumstances, they say, have changed since 1989 and the Chinese human rights record has improved.

They say that arms exports would still be controlled by a code of conduct under which a country's human rights record has to be considered. The code would also cover some exports of high technology equpiment and know-how not touched by the embargo.

What is the EU code of conduct?

The EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, agreed in 1998, states that the EU is "determined to prevent the export of equipment which might be used for internal repression or international aggression, or contribute to regional instability."

The code prohibits a sale where:

  • it would violate international commitments,
  • there is a "clear risk" that the export might be used for internal repression,
  • the export could provoke or prolong armed conflict or aggravate existing tensions,
  • there is a "clear risk" that the arms would be used aggressively against another country or to assert a territorial claim.

    The code calls for special caution where:

  • serious violations of human rights have been established,
  • the weapons might be used against EU allies and friends,
  • there is a risk of unintended transfer of technology or the use of reverse engineering.

    The Code also sets up a monitoring system to try to ensure compliance.

    Why is the United States opposed to the EU lifting its embargo?

    The US has its own arms embargo against China and says: "The US and European prohibitions on arms sales to China are complementary in the US view, were imposed for the same reasons, specifically serious human rights abuses, and those reasons remain valid today."

    President George Bush has also said that that lifting the EU embargo would "change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan, and that's of concern." Because the US might help defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China, it does not want anything to add to Chinese capabilities.

    What is the EU response to the US arguments?

    The EU argues that its code of conduct will be strengthened with a so-called "toolbox" of measures, currently under discussion, to increase scrutiny and openness.

    Britain, in particular, says that the code will have more legal effect than the embargo, which is open to differing interpretations, and that the overall impact on arms sales to China will be minimal.

    In particular the embargo is designed to stop the sale of lethal weapons, but the code of conduct would also cover so-called "dual use" high technology systems.

    The EU decided in December 2004 that "the result of any decisions should not be an increase of arms exports to China, neither in quantitive nor qualitative terms."

    What weapons systems does China want from the EU?

    Although it buys a lot from Russia, it is currently trying to improve the quality of its armed forces and is interested in high technology systems from Europe, especially those designed to help command and control.

    The French Defence Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said recently that by selling certain systems to China, the EU could prevent China from developing them itself. The US is not impressed by such arguments and says that, despite assurances, China's forces would be strengthened.

    When is the EU embargo likely to be lifted?

    There is no timetable. It had been thought that the embargo might be gone by July, but strong US pressure and the passage of a law by China authorising the use of force to stop independence for Taiwan has put that in doubt.

    There is no significant opposition to lifting the embargo among EU member states but it will not be ended until the strengthened code of conduct is agreed.

    The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has commented that because of the Chinese law, the issues had " actually got more difficult."

    The European Parliament has voted to oppose the move but this is an issue for member states to decide.

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