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EU must not suspend its
arms embargo of China



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

October 13, 2004

LONDON - Diminutive Taiwan's (population 23 million) best defense against massive China (population: 1.3 billion) is its vibrant democracy that gives it its telling sense of community. If there were a final showdown between the two it is true that guns probably wouldn't count. What would matter would be Taiwan's ability to amount a popular passive resistance to a Chinese occupation, including ending all high-tech investment in the Shanghai region which would have a devastating impact since this is the single most important factor in China's current boom.

But that is no excuse for the moves afoot by France and Germany to push the European Union into ending its arms embargo to China. A looser gun policy by Europe sends just the wrong signal. What we need is a reaffirmation of the status quo policy, the one in effect today most of the time, a policy that the EU now threatens to blast a hole in.

In his latest book, one of America's leading foreign policy academics, Michael Mandelbaum, describes the Taiwan Strait as "the single most dangerous place on the planet". The elements for catastrophe are all there. Taiwan could provoke China by reaching for formal independence, a theme which Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian, keeps returning to despite having promised in his inaugural address last year not to.

Or China could decide to act on its conviction (which has little basis in historical fact) that Taiwan belongs to the mainland and tries to get a successful invasion of Taiwan over and done with well before the 2008 Olympics, as Wang Zaixi, vice-minister of Beijing's Taiwan's Affairs Office, threatened as recently as August. Or the U.S. could decide to overdo its arms aid and thus provoke a nationalist backlash in China. Then indeed, as they used to say in the First World War, "the balloon might go up". But if the status quo is maintained none of this need happen.

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The status quo is best for everyone. Although Taiwan suffers from it by not having the seat it deserves in the UN in nearly every other way it acts as an independent country. China is stalled in an old imperial ambition but gains the goodwill of Taiwanese investors with their cutting edge technology. The U.S. gets the best from both Taiwan and China and is happy with the fudge that keeps the two sides calm. And Europe and the rest of the world have the promise of more prosperity by trading with a peaceful China and Taiwan.

So why is the European Union considering intruding on this precariously balanced status quo? Whilst Europe has never before played a role in this triangular relationship a decision to start selling China state-of-the art weaponry would directly unsettle the situation. It is not that the kind of weaponry that China could then buy would improve its ability to invade Taiwan - it already has that capability - but that modern Mirage jets, stealth submarines would strengthen China's hand against the U.S. should it ever come to a showdown over Taiwan. No wonder Washington is upset and no wonder that Europe is cleaved down the middle on the issue.

The split is at the top. Javier Solana, the Union's High Representative for Foreign Policy wants the arms embargo lifted. But the Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten doesn't. The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly against ending the embargo.

President Jacques Chirac of France simply says, "The embargo makes no sense today", but then with Iraq and Argentina the French have a long record of selling to those who will later decide to turn their guns on the West. But for Germany this is a new departure and given that the Green Party with its long record of opposing arms sales has its man at the helm of the foreign ministry it is incomprehensible that Berlin supports the French. Foreign minister Joschka Fischer says pitifully, "Sometimes there are situations where you have to make bitter decisions."

Right now China has less active enemies than it has had in its history. It is threatened by nobody. Chinese-U.S. relations have never been so good. President Bill Clinton in his last years in office hit upon a policy that President George W. Bush has successfully continued- a regular drumming on human rights issues whilst at the same time trading, commercial and educational links are strengthened. Part of the human rights stance has been to maintain the joint U.S.-EU arms embargo, first instituted following the massacre of the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

If Europe is going to destabilize this carefully crafted policy together with the equally subtle and related one towards Taiwan then it should come up with a better idea. It surely cannot. The status quo is the best for everyone and Europe should not work to undermine it.


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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