Friday, September 21, 2012

China calls for lifting of arms embargo

China's Premier Wen Jiabao has demanded an end to an arms embargo which has been in place for more than a decade. But with tensions high in the East and South China Seas and continued concerns over China's adherence to human rights in its own country, the chances of any relaxation are slim.


Speaking before European leaders at an EU summit in Brussels, Premier Wen called for a reappraisal of China's position concerning the buying of weapons and military hardware. "I have to be very frank in saying this... but the solution [to lifting the embargo] has been elusive over the past 10 years," Wen declared.

"I deeply regret this and I hope the EU side will take greater initiative to solve these issues," Wen implored. His requests are likely to fall on deaf ears however. Even before the annual summit EU sources were said to have "agreed to disagree" on the subject of an arms embargo [BBC / Al Jazeera / Telegraph / Channel News Asia / NYT].

"Major impediment"

The issue is nonetheless creating a source of tension between China and important trading partners. Last year a report by Baroness Ashton, Europe's foreign policy chief, warned that the embargo was "a major impediment" to developing EU-China ties.

With the EU looking towards China as a way out of the current economic crisis enveloping Europe, leaders are trying to avoid creating too much friction. But it is unclear how much China will be able to help ailing countries as its own economy begins to shrink. On Thursday European stocks dropped, partly in response to new figures released which showed China's manufacturing had contracted for the 11th month in a row.

The European Union is the biggest destination for Chinese exports, which were worth €292.5 billion, or about $382 billion, last year, while exports from the Union to China were worth €136.2 billion, making China the Union's second-largest trading partner after the United States and a major source of wealth and jobs.

Sensitive topics

The issues being discussed by China and EU leaders are particularly sensitive and there have been reports that some aspects of the meetings have been censored. Moments after Wen Jiabao uttered his critical remarks concerning the continuing arms embargo the live broadcast was cut.

"Broadcast services received a message saying the public part [of the ceremony] was over," said a European Union diplomat who asked not to be named.

Only hours earlier the EU executive announced it was scrapping plans to organise a press conference at the close of the summit, as is traditional at such events, after failing to agree with Chinese authorities. China had wanted to vet the journalists, said a European diplomat who asked not to be named [Fin Channel].

Stumbling blocks

While the arms embargo is a major stumbling block, it is not the only issue on the table. And China's wish to control press access was no doubt an attempt to reduce the glare on such discussions.

There are concerns amongst European leaders that China is dumping solar powered equipment in the EU for less than the cost of manufacture an issue that was expected to have been raised by EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht with his Chinese counterpart, Commerce Minister Chen Deming, on Thursday.

Another source of friction is a European law requiring airlines using airports inside the Union to account for their carbon dioxide emissions. China has stated that its airlines should not pay any associated charges without permission from the government. The first charges fall due in April 2013.

Territorial disputes

Discussions concerning the mounting tensions between China and Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan, were also said to have been held. The dispute has worried many economists because of the potential fallout sanctions could have on the world economy [CNN]. Following a similar dispute between China and Japan in 2010, China halted exports of rare earth metals to Japan for nearly two months.

The export ban drew international attention and helped lead to the filing in March this year of a World Trade Organization case, in which the European Union, the United States and Japan challenged China's right to limit exports of such important minerals.

There were said to be tense discussions over the situation in Syria. China, along with Russia, has vetoed proposed UN Security Council resolutions intended to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to end a crackdown on the Syrian opposition. Before the summit an EU official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Europeans "will emphasize the inability of the international community to mobilize" in the case of Syria [NYT].

Balancing act

While China is a key exporter and provider of much needed resources, giving in to demands of ending the arms embargo could prove more dangerous than not.
The EU embargo was imposed after the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and was also implemented by the United States which oppose any move to lift restrictions citing China's human rights record as well as concerns that it will upset the delicate balance of relations between China and Taiwan.

France and Italy has called for a lifting of the ban, but other EU countries are more divided on the issue, and with heightened tensions in the waters surrounding China, there are deep concerns that any weapons supplied could be used against China's neighbours or other nations that might step in to defend such aggression.

The ban, that limits high-technology sales to China which could have a dual military use, forces China to invest more in its own military research and development. China has described the arms embargo as a "relic of the cold war". But there are lessons which should be learnt from history when supplying weapons to other nations.

Historical lessons

There are several past incidents where weapons supplied to another nation have later been used against either the country that provided them or one of its allies. In 1982 during the Falklands War, the HMS Sheffield was struck by a French made Exocet missile [YouTube]. While France helped Britain contain the Exocet threat by providing the Exocet's code and homing radar, the danger was not entirely eliminated and the HMS Sheffield was sunk on the 10th October 1982, the first Royal Navy vessel sunk in action since World War II. Twenty of her crew, mainly on duty in the galley area and in the computer room, died as a result of the attack, though the death toll could have been much higher had the warhead detonated after impact.

Unresolved issues

In a joint communique released after the summit [PDF], leaders said they "noted with satisfaction that the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership had matured and become increasingly rich and multi-dimensional". Many issues are laid out in the document which calls for greater cooperation between the EU and China. However issues connected to the supplying of military technology still remain unresolved.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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