The EU’s military industrial complex

Timothy Garton Ash welcomes what appears to be a change of heart from the EU over selling arms to China.

Good news: it looks as if the European Union will postpone lifting its embargo on arms exports to China, at least until next year. This is right. The only thing wrong is that it took heavy US pressure to make it happen.

Consider. Europeans claim moral superiority over Bush’s America on the grounds that we always favour the peaceful resolution of conflicts and respect for human rights. Last week, China’s National People’s Congress passed a law which authorises the use of “non-peaceful means” to prevent moves towards Taiwanese independence. “Non-peaceful means” is an Orwellian euphemism for war.

These are not mere words. There is a serious Chinese military build-up, directed at Taiwan, the world’s first Chinese democracy. The veteran Singaporean leader, Lee Kuan Yew, recently told a visitor that he saw a 40% probability of war between China and Taiwan at some point over the next 10 years. And at this perilous moment, peace-loving Europe should be hurrying to sell arms to China?

Indeed. There hasn’t been much noise about the scandalous position taken by the EU on this issue. It would surely have been different if it were the other way round and the EU had a tough line of not arming a dictatorship which has long been making war-mongering grumbles against a small neighbouring state and it was the US who unilaterally announced it was going to break the agreement and start selling weapons to the free-market Stalinists?

Of course there would be no shortage of people pointing out the benefits to the US arms industry of financing Chinese revanchist ambitions. But it seems there is a blind spot (that we saw in the Iraq war debates) over the profit motive of EU states.

The main motive for wanting to lift the arms embargo is not political but, as one senior European commissioner put it to me, “mercantilist”. With sluggish growth and high unemployment, France and Germany are desperate to secure more export contracts from the world’s largest emerging economy. On the eve of his own wooing journey to Beijing, Chancellor Schröder described this policy as an expression of “true patriotism”. Translation: jobs for Germans take precedence over human rights for Chinese.

Sucking up – or should we say kowtowing? – pays off. Last year, the EU became China’s largest trading partner. The main purpose now is to get more civilian contracts, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But we’ll sell some arms too.

In fact, we already do. Despite the embargo, in 2003 EU member states approved licences for weapons exports to China worth more than £280m. And Chirac’s own defence minister has let the cat out of the bag, saying that it would be better for the Chinese to import our military technology rather than developing their own.