The EU has operated an arms embargo on China since 1989, following the suppression of protests in Beijing, however the interpretation of this embargo has varied, and as such, different states, in particular the UK and France, have taken different approaches in their dealings with China
In 1989, following the use of the People's Liberation Army by the Chinese government to suppress demonstrations in Beijing, several European Union member states announced arms embargoes against China. On 26 June 1989, in Madrid, the European Council of Ministers agreed that the arms embargo would become part of a set of EU-wide diplomatic and economic sanctions intended to signal disapproval of Chinese actions.
In 1989 the European Union had no common position on what items were covered under the expression "arms embargo". Therefore, it was up to individual member states to interpret the embargo in the context of their national laws, regulations and decision making processes.
An EU member state that took a broad definition of the embargo -- perhaps by including all items on the national munitions control list under the terms of the embargo -- ran the risk that its exporters would find themselves excluded from the Chinese market while exporters from an EU partner that took a narrow definition (for example, limited only to lethal items and crowd control equipment) were still able to sell into that market.
If this were to occur both the weight of the political signal sent to China and the trust among EU member states in the good faith of their partners would be diminished. Therefore, a greater policy coherence in the area of embargoes was desirable.
A statement by the United Kingdom government outlined that the embargo did not apply to the full range of goods controlled for strategic purposes.
Prior to the visit of French Defence Minister Charles Millon to China in April 1997, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang stated that the EU arms embargo reflected an "incorrect attitude" among EU states and said 'we hope the European Union will lift all its unreasonable criticisms of the Chinese government.'(1) Shen continued with regard to France:
- "I believe relations between the two militaries are an important part of our bilateral relations. In the future, there will be increased cooperation between the two countries in all fields."
In response the French Defence Minister stated that in respect of the EU embargo, 'there is no question of going back on the decision about the arms trade'. However, this did not mean that no forms of military cooperation between France and China were possible.
For the UK and France, it seems that the embargo on China has primarily been taken to cover lethal items and major weapon platforms. However, certain other goods and technologies with potential military applications are not considered to fall under the embargo (though they are still subject to national export control procedures which could lead to a denial of the license required to export).
For this reason the UK and France have been able to export to China equipment with military applications -- such as the UK Searchwater radar and the French AS-365N Dauphin-2 helicopter -- in the period since the embargo was imposed.
In 1997 other EU member states have made statements that the arms embargo would have to be reconsidered in the context of the EU to normalise relations with China. Other elements of the decision taken in 1989 have already been revised. In press reports France and Italy have been named as states interested to revise the 1989 decision. In March 1997 the Portuguese Defence Minister was quoted as saying that the EU arms embargo may be lifted.(2)
(1) Hong Kong Agence France Presse in English, 8 April 1997.
(2) As quoted in the Financial Times, 15 Dec. 1997 and The Independent, 25 March 1997, p. 15.