Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Хiaobo would have no doubt appreciated the sad irony of the moment – if only he wasn’t being held incommunicado in jail by China’s communist dictatorship.
A few days after the great and the good of the West honored Liu in a touching ceremony in Oslo in December, the EU foreign policy supremo Catherine Ashton recommended that the 27 member states lift the arms embargo on China. The embargo was placed on Beijing in 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists. Liu, who was first detained for his participation in the Tiananmen events, is serving out an 11 year sentence for “inciting subversion,” i.e. criticizing China’s one party rule and calling for democratic reform. Now the EU is poised to strike down one of the most important reminders of how dangerous and unpredictable the Chinese dictatorship is. China’s rulers have struggled to lift the embargo for years – not just because they need European technologies, but because the embargo rightly stigmatized their disregard for their own people, for the norms of behavior in international polite society, as well as their imperialist ambitions in Asia and beyond.
Now, for purposes of clarity, please forgive me this extensive quote from Agence France Presse, which spoke to a source close to Ashton.
“The issue has re-emerged following talks between China and the EU in Beijing focused on economic and trade cooperation, at which China indicated it would support heavily indebted eurozone economies struggling to raise finance on open markets at affordable interest rates. An unnamed EU official insisted there was ‘nothing of an exchange or negotiation whatsoever’ involving the arms embargo, stressing that there was ‘nothing given in exchange for that support.’ Chinese ambassador Song Zhe recently said: ‘It doesn't make any sense to maintain the embargo…we will develop our own arms even faster.’ He also claimed that companies in Europe were ‘losing out.’”
Now, this quote encompasses “everything you wanted to know about the EU, but were afraid to ask”. Firstly, as Richard Pearle once famously said, “Europe always goes where the money is”. The money, as the crisis has vividly shown, is most abundant in China, which doesn’t splash out on unsustainable social welfare programs (I am not even sure the term exists in the Chinese language,) while simultaneously letting its citizens borrow heavily – as the EU does. So the real reason for lifting the embargo is purely economic: Beijing has the resources to bail out crumbling EU finances.
Secondly, keeping the veneer of morality for any Brussels bureaucrat is still de rigeur – hence the protestation of the unnamed official that no exchanges were taking place. Then why did the issue spring up at all during purely financial negotiations? This is laughable even as a pretence.
Thirdly, the Chinese ambassador’s quote reveals the cynical hypocrisy of both sides. Patronizingly, Song tells the Europeans: “Do not agonize over the moral implications, we shall arm our 3 million officers and men with hi-tech weapons anyway. It will just take us a tad longer to produce ourselves. So help us to speed up the rearmament process up by lifting the embargo and you’ve got two benefits for the price of one: we’ll bail out your economies and your arms producers (that is those who haven’t yet been put out of business by your own governments) will also make an extra buck or two”. If I were Chinese, I would have adopted the same attitude vis-à-vis the Europeans.
Not much is known about the internal discussions on lifting the embargo among EU politicians. But I wasn’t surprised that one of the cheerleaders for abandoning the ban is the Socialist government of Jose Luis Zapatero in Spain. It meets two very important criteria a) it has long been teetering on the brink of a well-deserved financial collapse, and b) it still has to meet a leftist dictatorship it doesn’t like.
There is some hope that at least the lifting of the embargo will be conditioned by several demands: that those arrested in connection with the Tiananmen crackdown should be set free, that China improves ties with Taiwan, and that it compiles what in EU-speak is called “a timetable” for the ratification of the international convention on civil and political rights. Weak and unspecific as they are, these conditions will most likely also be dropped, as resistance by such countries as Britain, Germany and the Netherlands weakens.
If the EU lifts the embargo, it will be even easier for the pro-Chinese faction in the U.S. administration to speed up “military cooperation” with Beijing. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for it on a recent visit to China. Washington and Brussels seem to be bent on what in fact amounts to the legitimization of China’s own brand of undemocratic and expansionist policies. They think that in exchange Beijing will become what is called “a responsible stakeholder” in global affairs, i.e. help them to reign in Iran and North Korea, as well as pay more attention to – or disregard less, depending on your point of view – Western economic interests. Both the Americans and the Europeans will no doubt be sourly disappointed. China sees today’s Western leaders for what they are – intellectually mediocre, with horizons limited by opinion polls and spin doctors, unable or unwilling to stand up for the values they themselves proclaim. Get ready for more demands from the Middle Kingdom.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.