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EU Arms Embargo on China: The German debate

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 02, 2005

    The move by the European Union (EU) to lift the 15-year old arms embargo on China seems at present to have been set aside till the end of 2005. An informal meeting of the EU Foreign Ministers on April 15 at Gymnich, Luxembourg under the present Luxembourg presidency concluded to take no decision regarding the embargo. The press release issued after the meeting is a carefully drafted document. Essentially the press statement seems to please everyone. It attempts to project the unity of the 25 member nations of the EU on this issue; on the other hand it does not want to offend China and depicts her as “an increasingly indispensable actor on the international scene.” It does not mention the Anti-Secession Law against Taiwan passed by the Chinese National People’s Congress on March 14, or the tensions in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations because of the demonstrations staged by Chinese students against Japanese establishments in China. The statement also says that “discussions on this topic will continue both within the EU and with our partners.” Again it is not mentioned with which partners the discussions would get the priority, since the EU has already strategic partnerships with China, India and Japan in the Asian continent. However, it is quite obvious that decision with the senior partner across the Atlantic, the US, would be given utmost importance. Tough postures of the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and warnings by the US Congress to impose embargo on the EU should the latter lift the sanctions on China, seem to have strongly influenced the EU decision.

    Nevertheless, internal politics of the European Union as well as national politics within the member nations have also had its bearings on the EU decision. In order to advance their trade interests, France and Germany have, for some time, become strong advocates of lifting the post-1989 arms embargo on China. However, at a time when all the attention is focused on two major European events namely the British parliamentary elections and the EU Constitution ratification referendum in France, debate within Germany on the arms embargo decision certainly deserves consideration. Unlike France and Britain, differences within the partners of the German ruling coalition of Social Democrats and the Greens in this matter have come to the fore.

    The stance taken by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder is already well known. In conformity with his standpoint he has made six visits to China during his incumbency. On the occasion of his last visit to Asia in October 2004, the German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, commented (October 15, 2004) “For a long time, Schröder’s interest in Asia could be summed up in three words: China, China, China. The continent’s other giant, India failed to create any sort of glow on his radar screen.” This assessment was also shared by Schröder himself at a meeting in Delhi where he said that the German economy ought to seek opportunities primarily not only in China and Japan but in India as well.

    In the recent debate Chancellor Schröder by persistently promoting the line to lift the embargo, has positioned himself not only against his own Social Democratic Party (SPD) but also against Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister and the leader of the junior coalition partner, the Greens. Commenting upon a possible discussion on the arms export embargo in the Lower House of the German Parliament (Bundestag), Schröder insisted in an interview on March 31st to the German weekly, Die Zeit, that irrespective of any voting in the Bundestag, the final authority of foreign policy making lies with the federal government. This kind of stance by Schröder is often termed by the German opposition as Alleingang (go-it-alone policy). Informed quarters may compare such strong individualistic positioning as typical of Schröder. Just one week after Schröder’s interview to Die Zeit, the difference between the Chancellor and his own Foreign Minister came out into the open. Joschka Fischer in an interview on April 6 to the same weekly pronounced that he, his party and the parliamentary faction have a sceptical stand in this respect. Here it must be mentioned that Joschka Fischer in his speech to the 61st Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in March this year depicted the human rights situation in China as a source of concern. He insisted on rapid results in specific areas of deficit as far as the Chinese human rights situation is concerned. It is quite natural that the divergences in public on this matter have become a delight for the German opposition Christian Democrats. The 169th Plenary Session of Bundestag on April 14 witnessed a stormy debate on this issue. During the debate both the main blocs in the Bundestag have opposed each other citing their respective past and present stances vis-à-vis China. Joschka Fischer, cornered by the opposition, did not give any concrete answer whether he was for or against the arms embargo, but concluded that he had to work towards a European consensus-building on this issue.

    It is apparent that the issue of EU arms embargo is shelved for the time being. A revised and stricter version of EU Arms Export Code of Conduct is expected which would attempt to address this issue of observance of human rights and other criteria by the recipient nations. Lifting the embargo on arms export to China might coincide with some other developments like the enforcement of a new EU Arms Export Code of Conduct and the Chinese ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In the meantime, France and Germany at the official level would persist in lifting the embargo citing various reasons like the need to oppose the ‘containment’ of China and simultaneously averting a possible clash with the US, integrating China into the international system, etc. Joschka Fischer’s interview in the German daily Handelsblatt (April 17) is remarkable. In this interview he says that one of the greatest challenges would be to integrate rising world powers like China and India into the world system, so that they do not feel dejected. Fischer’s concern about China is quite understandable, but citing India as a case in point is a bit mystifying. Equating China with India in the context of integration into the international community seems to be simplistic. Fischer could have been more specific about the scale of integration into the international community and the respective places of India and China therein. Official enthusiasm shown by Germany to lift the arms embargo on China appears to be based on the reciprocal support of China to the German membership of the UN Security Council. But it must be remembered that Germany, Japan, India and Brazil have already formed the Group of Four (G 4). At the last 59th UN General Assembly in September 2004, all the four countries in a joint statement pledged to support each other’s candidature for UNSC membership. In order to realise their aspiration, the G4 understandably has to go a long way as it needs the nod of the P5. Comparing the largest democracy at this juncture with a nation which still does not have a multi-party electoral system may undermine the cohesion of the G4 and act as weapons for other regional competitors which are serious enough to prevent the entry of the G4 into the UN Security Council. Being politically, economically and strategically the most important European nation, Germany’s stand on specific issues carries weight at the level of EU and globally as well. Observance of Human rights in any part of the world is one of the most important pillars of German foreign policy. Most pertinently, Germany has been criticising the human rights situation in China at various international fora, but has also engaged China in a “Dialogue on Constitutional State” (Rechtsstaatdialog). German Foreign Ministry has also been maintaining close contacts with the Chinese political activists and cyber-dissidents. But the recent disagreement within the ruling coalition in Germany shows the need for a cohesive China Policy that would deal with specific issues like human rights or environment protection not episodically but over a specific time frame.

    At the level of EU it emerges that till the end of 2005 the arms embargo against China is not likely to be lifted. Austria and Finland, two smaller members are scheduled to hold the EU presidencies respectively in 2006. Given recent history, Chinese diplomatic persuasion of the EU majors and the presidencies would continue to have a favourable effect. But the US measures on EU would have to be taken into account. Therefore, the possible scenario is that for a positive outcome, China has to wait till 2007 when Germany would hold the first half of EU presidency. However, in between the EU itself is expected to go through the litmus test on its existence, i.e., the EU constitution ratification referenda in various West European nations. Negative voting on this issue in any member nation might set the whole European integration process in a reverse gear. Moreover, Germany will go for national polls in the autumn of 2006. Therefore, in the European agenda lifting the arms embargo on China would not be as important as it has turned out to be in the last few months. On the contrary, consensus-building on the issue of arms embargo would become less significant than the issue of importing textiles from China. Already thirteen members of the EU have been exerting pressure on Brussels to protect indigenous European manufacturing units. Nicolas Schmit, the Minister Delegate for Foreign Affairs and Immigration of Luxembourg, identifies the subject as an ”extremely thorny dossier”. Keeping in mind that common trade is one of the most important elements in the first pillar of the EU, it would be interesting to observe which topic would get EU priority in the coming days, textiles or the arms embargo.