Jeffrey LewisEU Arms Embargo on China

Check out the Export Control Blog maintained by Scott Gearity, an export compliance consultant and owner/founder of Gearity Consulting Group.

His coverage of the EU’s deliberations over the arms embargo on China has been first rate—even if I find his (and much of Washington’s) opposition to lifting the embargo kind of strange.

To be precise, I think it strange to have a strong opinion one way or the other.

Let me explain.

First, The current embargo is largely symbolic—it is a single bullet point in an European Council statement.

Here is the full text of the embargo decision:

In the present circumstances, the European Council thinks it necessary to adopt the following measures …

  • interruption by the Member States of the Community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China, …

The text law matters less than implementation, which in the case of the embargo is left entirely to the members of the European Union. (SIPRI has a nice website, with statements by France and the UK parsing that single sentence.) European states have widely varying definitions of what constitutes “arms.” Using the US State Department’s definition, our friends in the UK exported $70 M worth of arms to China over 1997-1999. (The French, by the way, exported no arms to China during this period). Here is a chart using State Department data:

Arms Exports to China, 1997-1999 (US$ millions)

60 70 0 1300 0 40 110 0 150 0 30 1810

World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT) (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 6 February 2003). Link

Second, the question is not “to embargo or not to embargo”, but whether to replace the embargo with a strengthened EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.

I’ve never seen a serious analysis that demonstrates precisely which arms could be exported under a notional, strengthened Code but not under the ad hoc (or Swiss cheese) Embargo operated by EU states. David Shambaugh worries that a strengthened Code will not cover dual-use technologies. But the current embargo doesn’t cover dual-use technologies, either. Most analyses focus, perversely, on what Europe is already selling to China.

Third, if a strengthened Code would allow a different basket of arms exports, the United States still retains a massive amount of diplomatic leverage to stop genuinely dangerous arms transfers.

Two years ago, Washington successfully pressured Israel to suspend the sale of four early warning Phalcon aircraft to China. Although some conservatives continue to insist that Israel is transferring large amounts of arms to China, but Bush Administration officials seem to think diplomacy succeeded. “Before the Israelis get in another situation where they are crosswise with us,” a senior official told Reuters, “they’ll think twice about it—the last flap still reverberates.”


Given these three factors, I don’t see much difference between a strengthened Code and the ad hoc Embargo.

Neither, by the way, does the Bush Administration. Condoleeza Rice’s public objections have emphasized symbolism and a vague fear of change. Rice has said the EU would not send the “right” signal by lifting the embargo, and expressed a general concern “about the transfer of technology that might endanger in some way that very delicate military balance.”

“In some way …”?

A strengthened Code of Conduct might actually reduce the overall amount and sophistication of arms exports by imposing standardization on some of the states most active in exporting arms to China (Ahem, Mr. Blair). Whether a strengthened Code results in more or less (better or worse) exports than the ad hoc Embargo will depend on the precise changes to the Code and its implemention—both of which could usefully be the subject of a more focused, competent US diplomatic effort.

The difference either way, though, would be small. Hence, it seems kind of weird to feel strongly about the choice between a strengthened Code or the ad hoc Embargo.

Speaking of “kind of wierd” and “feeling strongly” about things … The American Enterprise Institute held a conference on the subject—with the token European defender of replacing the embargo with a strengthened Code—that is worth reading.

Also, here are competing State Department and European Union fact sheets.


  1. Scott Gearity (History)

    Thanks for the link and comments. I’ve posted a very brief response on my site with more to follow in the coming days.

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