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Europe

China Weapons Embargo Full of Holes

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 -- as do American ones.

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Where did they come from?

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 following 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. 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, the argument goes. Italy and Spain have delivered helicopter technology which they didn't 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.

Gerhard Schröder in China Minister

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In total, the EU states' "exemptions" from the weapons embargo were worth about €413 million ($550 million) in 2003. The biggest exporter was France, followed by Britain and Italy. The German contribution is relatively small. The EU's official journal calculated that, in 2002, licenses for weapons exports were worth merely €210 million. But before a year had passed, the amount EU countries were 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 taken at their word. European weapons manufacturer EADS just concluded an agreement with a Chinese partner, AviChina, and aims to become active as soon as the legal situation allows it.

US sells to China too

As measured as a percentage of the total of Chinese-European trade volume, valued at around €115 billion annually, weapons transactions are only a side note. China currently buys about €7 billion worth of weapons yearly on the international market to modernize their army, and its on the way to becoming the world's biggest weapons importer. American firms also deliver weapons to China even though the US government strictly rejects abolishment of the EU 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 US Congress' accounting office. And Israel sold China technology it had acquired from the US. So-called "dual-use-wares," equipment that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, must also be counted, even though they go missing from weapons export statistics.


Decision pending

Thus, 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.

Soldat auf Tiananmen Platz in Peking

Where it all started: Tiananmen Square

The code has existed since 1998, and a revised and stronger version is under consideration, something France vehemently opposes. But EU member states generally, if unenthusiastically, agree that the embargo should be abolished if the code of conduct remains as it is. That will be decided on in June.

Meanwhile, the US Congress has threatened 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, 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 have said. The economic interests of the French, British and German weapons industry must remain in second place.

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