Testing the Transatlantic Alliance
Committed to protecting Taiwan, what is U.S. reaction to the EU plan to sell China arms?
June 16, 2005
During his European tour in February 2005, President Bush bluntly warned European leaders that they must “sell” the lifting of the arms ban to Congress or face retaliation in the form of restrictions on lucrative European defense contracts in the U.S. market. That warning was repeated to Brussels by Deputy Secretary of State, Bob Zoellick.
In contrast, with hostile sentiment in the U.S. Congress, the Bush Administration itself — with few exceptions — is taking a more moderate approach, saying that the U.S. government will judge EU policy not by changes to this or that regime, but by what the EU actually sells to China. There are several reasons for this.
First, the administration knows that other limits on arms sales will still apply after the EU lifts the embargo, which has been in place since 1989.
European countries — alongside other states like Canada, Japan and Australia — will continue to apply restrictions on sales of military-related technology to China.
They do so under a number of regimes that include China, but do not target it exclusively (such as the Wassenaar agreement or the Missile Technology Control Regime).
The Bush Administration is also well aware that Brussels will accompany the lifting of the 1989 ban with a strengthening of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports to address American concerns.
Second, the administration knows that the United States has sold much more military-related technology to China than Europe has in the 16 years since the ban was imposed.
The United States was more liberal in its sales policies under President Clinton.
In some years, the total value of military-related technologies approved by the United States was in excess of $1 billion. This compares with just $200-300 million a year in total for the few EU member countries selling to China.
Third, and most importantly, EU sales after the arms ban is lifted would be insignificant in affecting the Chinese calculus of risk for using force against Taiwan to prevent secession. This is true even if they are doubled or even tripled from present value in the next five to ten years.
At the same time, such sales would definitely contribute to an improvement in China’s military capabilities. But the contribution would be miniscule and would likely take ten to 20 years to have any effect at all on the capacities of the Chinese armed forces for large-scale combat operations.
This is even the assessment of the U.S. Department of Defense, an organization which until recently has had a reputation for being “hawkish” on China.
In their 2004 report to Congress on China’s military power, the Pentagon assessed, “Beijing still has a political strategy for unification with a military component, not a military strategy with a political component.”
“Its longstanding approach to resolving the cross-Strait standoff is multifaceted, integrating political, economic, cultural and military strategies to exert all of its national power to dissuade Taiwan against ever crossing any red lines.”
Most importantly, the Pentagon noted that “China does not wish to attack Taiwan,” but that “it needs to be prepared to do so for the non-military components of its strategy to be sufficiently persuasive.”
One of the leading China security specialists in the United States, Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, assessed as recently as March 2005 that lifting the EU arms embargo imposed in 1989 will have little impact on China’s military technology development.
Bates Gill observed, “Lifting the embargo in and of itself will have little impact on technology flows of concern to China.” (Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate “Lifting of the EU Arms Embargo on China,” March 2005.)
According to the US Department of Defense, “self-sufficiency will continue to be China’s long-term defense industrial goal.” (From the 2004 U.S. Department of Defense Report to Congress on China’s military strength.)
The Pentagon also assessed that if the EU eased its restrictions, “Beijing likely will continue to look to Russia to fulfill its military procurement goals and Russia most likely will remain the primary supplier of China’s advanced conventional weapons.”
The Pentagon also assesses that self-sufficiency, not foreign imports, will remain the main strategy of China’s military industries and procurement planning.
The anti-secession resolution passed in March 2005 by China’s legislative body, which authorizes the use of force against Taiwan in certain circumstances, appeared as a strong vindication of Congressional opposition to lifting the EU ban.
Although ill timed, the law does not represent a hardening of Chinese policy on Taiwan towards a more aggressive stance.
In fact, the new law actually represents a hardening of China’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the problem. The law mandates the exhaustion of all possible means for peaceful resolution of the dispute before a resort to military means.
Such language has never before been used by the Chinese government in respect to settling the Taiwan problem.
After the EU lifts the ban, there may well be some differences between the United States and its European allies as to which arms are restricted to China — and which are not. But in terms of the motive forces of world power politics — or the big decisions for war — these differences will not be significant.
As is usually the case with sanction regimes, the fierceness of Congressional opposition to the lifting of the embargo stems more from domestic political considerations than from any evaluation of the embargo’s effectiveness in changing the policy of the target state.
As the U.S. relationship with China remains fiercely contested within the senior levels of the Bush Administration, there are persistent disputes all the way up to the president.
It must be noted that some of the loudest U.S. critics of the EU plans to end the 1989 arms ban are just as critical of the U.S. government for its own approach to the issue.
Many in the United States who attack Europe on this point are in fact using it as a proxy in the domestic argument.
Europe must now face down the alliance of special pleaders within the United States to convince the Congress that it will continue to restrict the sales of weapon systems to China effectively — much as the United States does itself. This is true even if the 1989 China-specific ban is written off the books.
This will require a vigorous public diplomacy campaign involving senior European political figures and well-informed specialists to explain the EU’s position to the American public and their elected representatives in Congress.
Leading EU member states — namely Britain, France, Italy and Germany — must act together to deliver a common message. Failure to do so could lead to a dangerous misunderstanding that the transatlantic alliance can ill afford.