The US wants it, the EU wants it gone. The fight over the weapons embargo against China has smoldered for weeks. The fact is that European firms already deliver weapons to China -- so do American ones.
The EU weapons embargo against China can be summed up in a single sentence: "For the moment, the European Parliament thinks it is necessary to take the follow measures: break off military cooperation and institute a weapons embargo against China."
With these words, the leaders of the EU countries instituted their policy following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Which weapons are to be affected and how the embargo should be monitored has never been put in writing. Great Britain decided that British weapons and parts that are not "deadly effective" can be exported. Today, Chinese warplanes lift off with Rolls Royce engines.
France and Italy, long after 1989, also continued to deliver radar systems, rockets and airplanes to China. They had these contracts before China cracked down on the democracy movement, goes the argument. Italy and Spain have delivered helicopter technology which they didn't want to equate with weapons systems, but which now is used in Chinese military helicopters. A German firm received contracts for 2,000 diesel engines to be used for Chinese submarines. Whether the contract was filled is unclear.
In total, the EU states' "exemptions" from the weapons embargo was worth about EUR 413 million ($550 million) in 2003. The biggest exporter is France, followed by Great Britain and Italy. The German contribution is relatively small. The official newspaper of the EU calculated that in 2002, the amount of weapons exporting royalties was worth merely EUR 210 million. But before a year had passed, the amount EU was selling to China had almost doubled.
According to critics of weapons exports, guarantees by leading politicians such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who says abolishing the embargo doesn't necessarily mean an export boom in weapons, can't be trusted. The European weapons manufacturer EADS just concluded an agreement with a Chinese partner, AviChina, and wants to become active as long as they are allowed to by law.
The Americans also sell weapons
As measured as a percentage of the total of the Chinese-European trade volume, valued at around EUR 115 billion annually, the weapons transactions are only a side note. China currently buys about EUR 7 billion worth of weapons annually on the international market in order to modernize their army and is on its way to becoming the world's biggest weapons importer. American firms also deliver weapons to China even though the government strictly rejects the abolishment of the embargo.
In fact, from 1989 to 1998, about $350 million worth of weapons were delivered to China, reported the Arms Control Association, an independent organization based in Washington, DC, using data collected by the Government Accounting Office. Israel sold China technology it had acquired from the US. Also, some so-called "dual-use-wares," equipment that can be used for civilian and military purposes, have to be counted, even though they are missing from weapons export statistics.
The almost 16-year-old EU weapons embargo is full of holes. It should be strengthened through a stricter code of conduct for member states, says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for foreign relations. This code has existed since 1998 and a revised and stronger version is under consideration, something France vehemently opposes. But if the code of conduct rules remain as they are, EU member states generally if unenthusiastically agree that the embargo should be abolished. That will be decided on in June.
Meanwhile, the US Congress is threatening trade sanctions against the EU. The Americans are afraid that, through their cooperation on the Europeans' new Galileo satellite navigation system, China will acquire a previously undreamed of military advantage. Until now, there had only been one satellite navigation system, one controlled by the US military.
The European Parliament has repeatedly spoken out against the abolishment of the weapons embargo against China in the past: As long as there are dismal considerations for human rights and threats against Taiwan, this symbolic gesture should not be removed, members say, adding that the economic interests of the French, British and German weapons industry must remain in second place.