Arms Sales: Paris and Berlin in the Clutches of the Dragon

Article published on Jan. 5, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 5, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Germany and France are pushing Europe to lift the embargo on arms sales to China – a punishment imposed shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre. An analysis of a political and strategic mistake.

The Franco-German double act is intent on forgetting the past and ignoring the present. Over 14 years ago, Europe imposed an embargo on arms sales to China as a punishment after the army massacred thousands of people on Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. Today, Paris and Berlin wish to lift this embargo at a time when Beijing continues to violate human rights and is threatening to invade Taiwan.

At the request of President Chirac, the European Council agreed to “review the embargo issue” on 12th December at the tail end of the Brussels summit. On a visit to Beijing the previous week, Chancellor Schröeder had supported the French request in advance, coming out “in favour of lifting the embargo”. Thus Berlin has officially joined Paris, which has been campaigning for months to convince its European partners. As early as June 2003 the French Minister of Defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie, had already been calling for a “softening” of the ban.

But why lift this arms embargo? According to French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, it’s “anachronistic”. And this is not the French view. On the 30th October, during the sixth China-EU summit in Beijing, president Hu Jintao stated that the circumstances of Tiananmen were now “long gone” and that the time had come to “remove the barriers to a strengthening of bilateral Chinese-European co-operation in the defence and technology industries”. Morality has been long since forgotten; temptation has become irresistible. The French and German governments have of course given in to their military-industrial lobbies who are just waiting to be given the green light to rush into the Chinese arms market…with no scruples whatsoever.

If Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröeder manage to convince their European counterparts, they will, however, be making a political and strategic mistake.

Human rights pushed aside

The political mistake is that the embargo on arms sales is based on the improvement of human rights in China. “Lifting the embargo would give the impression that progress has been made”, warned Thomas Mann, the president of the Tibet Intergroup at the European Parliament. For some diplomats, China’s ratification of UN Convention on civic and political rights – signed in 1998 and subject to certain reservations (the death penalty, “freedom of association” etc) - could suffice. How ridiculous! Remember that Hu Jintao, the new Chinese Supremo, sent a congratulatory telegram to the leaders after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and that, above all, in March the same year he bloodily put down a Tibetan uprising. The “new” China that he embodies has no regrets. Persistent human rights violations are testament to that. The 2003 Amnesty International report denounces the terrifying number of death sentences (1,921 including 1,060 executions recorded in 2002). How can we ignore the now regular detention of workers and internet users for peacefully exercising freedom of expression and association? Lifting the embargo on weapons would mean once and for all terminating the Chinese-European dialogue on human rights and democracy.

The illusion of shared interests

This desire to lift the embargo is also testament to a terrible strategic illusion with uncontrollable consequences. The French and Germans wrongly think that China shares their vision of a “multi-polar world”, where a counterweight to American unilateralism would ensure peace and development in the world. Beijing is fully aware of how to manipulate this avowed convergence of interests. But its aims have nothing to do with a balanced and peaceful world order. Their aim is purely and simply to re-establish the “unity of China” and to rediscover a dominant place in the Asia Pacific. To do this they need to drive the US, their only real rival, out. But where is Europe’s interest in all that?

Wedded to their illusions, Germany and France are allowing their greed get the better of them. It’s of little concern to them that they would be delivering arms to a China which is threatening more than ever before to invade Taiwan. On 20th November, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had declared that his country was ready to “pay any price” to prevent Taiwan organising a referendum on its full independence. To make its threat credible in the face of the American anti-missile shield which protects the island, Beijing needs so-called “sensitive” European technologies. Hence its rush to contribute around 200 million Euros to the Galileo project. This satellite civil and military surveillance system would release Europeans from their dependence on GPS (1), the American system. This is a technological and strategic godsend for our Chinese “partners”. In brief, the lifting of the European embargo on arms is the last “anachronic” obstacle to flourishing “strategic co-operation”.

China can now only wait and hope for European consensus on this issue. It is straightforward enough: they need to inspire confidence in the Franco-German duo in order to persuade their remaining opponents on this issue. And things are moving on as the Danes and the Swedes, the last representatives of European conscience on this issue, have voted for the embargo to be reviewed. Nothing has been decided yet. But the dragon is patiently biding its time.

(1) Global Positioning System