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28th May 2022

EU to keep China arms embargo despite massive investments

  • Tiananmen Square today. Chinese tanks drove over peaceful demonstrators in the plaza in 1989 in a crackdown said to have cost over 7,000 lives (Photo: CuriousGeoff)

Catherine Ashton has failed to persuade the UK and other Beijing-critical member states to lift the EU arms embargo on China. But China is continuing to build influence in the Union with bond purchases from vulnerable countries.

"There remains a broad consensus within the EU that the time is not right to lift the arms embargo. We need to see clear progress on the issues that necessitated the embargo in the first place, namely on civil liberties and political rights," a British diplomat told EUobserver on Tuesday (4 January) in response to speculation on a potential shift in EU policy, which would require agreement by all 27 EU members.

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A diplomat from a former Communist EU country added: "There is simply no talk of it in the run-up to the EU foreign ministers' meeting [on 31 January]. After the Nobel Peace Prize and China's reaction to that, it is politically unimaginable to make any move for the time being."

Leaving aside the moral dimension, any change on the embargo could also harm EU-US relations.

Asked by EUobserver on Tuesday if the US is reconsidering its position on China arms sales, the State Department pointed to comments made by a senior US diplomat, John Hillen, in 2005 as still being relevant. Mr Hillen at the time said that lifting the embargo would "raise a major obstacle to future US defence co-operation with Europe."

The EU imposed the ban in 1989 in response to China's killings of thousands of dissidents during protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

France and Spain have recently argued that the arms ban is out of date due to China's economic metamorphosis and de facto changes in EU-China trade relations.

The EU's foreign relations chief, British politician Catherine Ashton, aligned herself with anti-embargo countries in a strategy paper on China delivered to EU leaders in December. The paper said the embargo is "a major impediment" to better relations and that the Union should elaborate "a way forward."

Her appeal came despite China's aggressive diplomacy on the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

China at the time urged EU embassies in Oslo to boycott the Nobel gala or face unspecified "consequences." Chinese President Hu Jintao had the same month visited Lisbon and promised to support its ailing economy, while Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had in in Athens in October promised to buy junk Greek bonds.

In the end Greece and Portugal both sent ambassadors to the Nobel event. But China has begun the new year with a fresh EU diplomatic offensive targeting Germany, Spain and the UK.

Chinese deputy prime minister Li Keqiang arrived in Madrid on Tuesday and will go to Berlin and London later in the week.

The Chinese ambassador to Spain, Zhu Bangzao, told Spanish daily El Pais on Tuesday that Beijing will buy more Spanish bonds, saying: "During these times of crisis, China feels it is a requirement to support Spain and the EU ... We are not coming empty handed." China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, wrote in a comment for British daily The Telegraph the same day: "[We] will take concrete action to help some EU members to address their sovereign debt problem ... China is doing what a Chinese proverb says about 'sending charcoal in snowy weather'."

With a sovereign debt crisis in Spain threatening the future of the eurozone, the EU-China game is being played out for the highest possible stakes.

An EU diplomatic source noted that this week's trip by Mr Li is designed to help bring state-of-the-art aviation technology to China rather than military technology strictly speaking. "The Chinese have stopped pressing on the arms embargo at every possible opportunity and are focusing their efforts more on high-tech exports for now," the contact explained.

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