European military sales to China were one of the most divisive topics in Sino-European relations in 2005. The EU embargo on arms exports to China became a symbolic issue that created divisions not only between Beijing and Brussels, but also among EU members themselves, and between the EU and the US.
The reality is that despite the existence of the EU embargo, European countries continue to sell military equipment to China. The latest EU figures show that 202 licenses for sales of military equipment to China were issued in 2005 with a total value of US$413 million. This compares with 159 licenses issued in 2004 for arms valued at US$505 million.
It is well known that France is one of the strongest advocates in the EU for lifting the embargo, and cynics argue that this is simply because it wants to increase military sales to China. It is true that France is Beijing's largest European military equipment supplier, but it is run a close second by the UK, which is normally depicted as being pro-embargo. France approved 123 licenses worth US$205 million in 2005, US$3 million down on 2004, while Britain generated US$180 million from 38 licenses in 2005, up US$44 million on 2004.
Given the size of these sales, even if they are insignificant when compared with Russian arms exports to China, it could be questioned whether the embargo really still exists. Even on paper, its status is less clear than is commonly assumed. The embargo was part of a package of sanctions imposed on China in the Madrid Declaration following the events of June 1989. Although the embargo was agreed by the EU members, no binding Europe-wide definition of what it actually meant was ever produced.
Interpretation of how the embargo should be implemented is left to national governments. While EU members are unlikely to export conventional weapons, beyond this the waters are less clear. Last year, the single most valuable category of French export licenses was electronic equipment for military use, and the second was imaging equipment. The single largest UK category of licenses was for aircraft and aircraft equipment.
To those, especially in the US, who say lifting the embargo would lead to a surge in arms transfers to China, the EU argues that even if it was removed, exports to China would still be strictly limited under its code of conduct which applies to all export sales of military equipment. It is in the process of strengthening and clarifying this code, and has gone so far as to stress that it would not permit any increase in military sales at all should the embargo be lifted.
China has also said that is has no plans to increase purchases, but is primarily concerned with righting what it considers a political wrong. Even then, it appears unwilling to let the issue undermine overall relations with the EU: the embargo question was largely avoided during Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao's recent visits to Europe. If these European and Chinese positions could be relied on, the embargo itself becomes largely symbolic, as its lack of uniform application and the increased sales in recent years suggest it actually is.
Its symbolism is increased by the fact that all the other sanctions adopted by the EU in 1989 have been long since abandoned. But it has attracted the attention of critics not only in Europe, but also in the US and Asia who see the EU as engaging in a dangerous policy by moving to lift the restrictions. Symbolic or otherwise, the embargo isn't something that will be easily removed.