The 1989 arms embargo and China

30 Dec, 2004    ·   1603

Tshering Chonzom analyses the issue of arms embargo in the context of Chinese foreign policy

Apart from the concept of "peaceful rise" of China which has received less attention lately, another phrase that recurs in China's leaders' statements is "independent foreign policy of peace" and "peace and development". Though the term "peace" resonates loudly in all of them, it is the term "independent" which is intriguing. The document released after the culmination of the fourth plenum of the 16th CPC Central Committee on 26 September 2004 said that the CPC would adhere to "the independent foreign policy of peace" and "always put national sovereignty and security in the first place". This conveys that the dictum is motivated out of the conscious perception of the presence of a 'hostile opponent' out to renege on China's "sovereignty and security" and thus the need to militarily modernize. The imposition of an arms embargo, then becomes a major impediment towards an 'independent' role for China.

In the 1980's China's "independent foreign policy" was directed against the big powers, US and the Soviet Union. The latter is no more. As far as the European countries are concerned, China seems to be in a spirit of engagement. The EU-China relationship is now that of 'comprehensive strategic partnership', whereas Bush in 2000 had termed China as a 'strategic competitor'. The fact that the issue of Taiwan, the most salient threat to China's "sovereignty and security" has lingered as a major bone of contention between the US and China, it is obvious that the 'other' to be watched for various reasons is the US. One of the reasons is the continued condemnation of China on its human rights abuses by the US as late as 14 December 2004 during the new House International Relations Committee hearings chaired by Rep. Chris Smith.

The arms embargo on China was sanctioned by the US and the EU after the military crackdown of students demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Whereas US sees the ban as relevant necessitated by the lack of improvement from China on the issue of human rights and the continued semantics of belligerence towards Taiwan, China terms it as a legacy of the "cold war" and a means to inflict "political discrimination against it". If one were to believe in the dictum "history repeats itself", then present situation would fall in that category. Thus China's attempt to "lean on one side", this time the European Union, facilitated by conditions favourable to China. EU became China's largest trading partner and China became EU's second largest trading partner in 2004 with the enlargement of the European Union this year. Germany has been China's largest trade partner in Europe for the past 30 years.

The fragile transatlantic alliance that faced increasing strain owing to American unilateralism in Iraq last year is being tested with renewed calls for lift of the arms ban on China pioneered by France and Germany. On 2 November, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said that China would "enunciate its stance over the embargo" during Gerard's visit to China as well as during Wen's trip to Netherlands, which it did. French President Jacques Chirac during his visit to China from 8-12 October termed the arms ban as "groundless and illogical".

In a joint statement released after the Seventh China-EU Leaders' Meeting from 7-9 December 2004, China called upon the EU to "immediately remove(d)" the arms embargo on China. The European Union leaders likewise declared "political will" to lift the ban possibly by next June but at the same time suggested that any lifting of the arms ban would be "purely symbolic".

This is a development certainly not amenable to the United States. Beijing has made it a point to respond to international criticism and sometimes even preempt it. On such lines, China organized a two-day seminar on human rights on 23 December where Jiang Zhenghua, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of National People's Congress stated "Enshrining human rights protection in the Constitution earlier this year…turns a new chapter for human rights endeavors in China". Xinhuanet reported on 25 December that "China will enact and revise a series of laws to implement the constitutional principle of 'State Respects and Protects Human Rights'".

Rather than the precondition for improvement of China's human rights record, what the US fears more is the use of the weapons sold by EU against US forces stationed in Taiwan or even South Korea and Japan. It is apparent that the US too sees in China the 'other' given the realigning of its forces in the former and also considering revising its alliance with Japan next year. The result has been US warning to EU that lifting the ban "could lead to a curtailment of military technology cooperation between the US and Europe" (Financial Times, 23 December 2004). Whether the translantic rift would develop into a 'divorce' is for time to tell but it is apparent that the ban would be eased keeping symbolism in mind.

Though the EU Parliament voted (by 572 votes against 72), against lifting the current weapons embargo against China, it is the national governments who have the ultimate say and "about one half of the EU's 25 member states are in favor of lifting the embargo" (DW World.De, 18 November 2004). The report further says that parliamentarians are striving "to make the code of conduct for arms sales legally binding so that if arms do begin going to China, stricter controls will be in place".