Again, the China arms embargo issue

Spain’s call for the EU to lift the arms embargo against China suffers from bad timing and blundering diplomacy

Politics is sometimes just about timing. Simply following the lead of Spain’s Ambassador to China, on 26 January Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Moratinos, raised the issue of lifting the EU arms embargo against China.  Only four days later, on January 30, China announced it would sanction US aerospace manufacturers selling weapons to Taiwan. Bad timing.

We haven’t heard much from Moratinos or Spain on this issue since. They are still absorbing the news that President Obama will not attend the EU-US summit under their EU presidency in May.

But under deeper inspection, the timing of arms embargo developments also reflects China’s priorities and Europe’s lack of leverage. In 2005, an earlier move by the EU to lift the arms embargo was squashed when China passed a law mandating the use of force against Taiwan in case of a “secession”, with utter indifference to the impact of this on European decisions.

It seems some member states still have difficulty adapting to reality. What is striking about Moratinos’ call was the lack of method and strategy.  Going public, not mentioning what China might do to justify the change of policy, and suggesting there is some urgency to the matter are all bad negotiating moves.

In our EU-China power audit (published last year), we argued that consideration should be given to lifting the arms embargo, but only against some very significant move by the Chinese. The watershed example would be China’s support in getting Iran to quit its nuclear programme. One might also imagine less ambitious goals of reciprocity – such as a key commitment by China to goals of better governance in Africa.

Instead, Moratinos has failed to suggest any effort China might make to warrant such a big political move by Europe. There seems to be some expectation of future Chinese goodwill of an unspecified nature. But no details of what, when, how and why. China is a realist power, and we all know the likelihood of it providing unsolicited concessions. So this political blunder is not just in the timing.

Having gone through the experience in 2004-2005 of seeing the Europeans make exactly the same promise on the arms embargo, and then back off, China has retained a very low profile on Moratinos’ proposal. But it is bound to have taken due notice of the weakness, division, and lack of coordinated thinking on EU-China relations. Spain, after all, holds the EU Presidency.

Some Europeans still think China’s rise will bring gifts and freebies to those who adopt the correct political attitude. If you have something that China strongly desires – oil, raw materials, high technology – that may indeed be the case.

The scary thing for Spain – and Europe – is that China is starting to use its huge economy as political weaponry. For decades, China’s political use of its trade arsenal has been minimal: it was far too concerned with playing the market for lower prices and more advanced technology to afford politically-motivated deals.

But this is changing. In the last two years, China has become much more punitive against Europeans who do not follow its script on EU-China relations. See, for example, its open and harsh criticism of France and Denmark for meeting with the Dalai-Lama. And it is now becoming demonstrably tougher towards the US, as the strong move against US companies shows.

It would be unwise to ascribe these changes only to a self-intoxicated mood of superiority. China is not deluding itself with feelings of self-confidence. It is probing the west for weaknesses and division. This is the mark of a realist power, not necessarily aiming to upset the global balance, but making sure it stays ahead and collects on the strategic front the profits from its extraordinary economic growth.

Now is the least auspicious time to make spontaneous, unconditional and uncoordinated tenders to the Chinese. It is the time for collective and strategic offers: the exact opposite of the individual and somewhat blundering approach by Spain’s diplomacy. Getting the timing right is the first step.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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