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The European Union's Relations with China
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China is currently a major player in the international political game. The EU officially recognized it in 2003, with the signing of the European Security Strategy. The document acknowledged the new status of China as a rising key player in the global arena, and also that it was in the best interests of the EU to make it a major target of its Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Ups and downs have characterized Sino-EU relations, and constant presence of the US as a pro-active spectator has possibly hindered possibilities of growth. Nevertheless, both the EU and China acknowledged the importance of their cooperation for each other, and today, the EU is China’s second largest trade partner, with a market volume that has grown by 80 times over the last 20 years.

Currently, the arms embargo remains the sole barrier to a flourishing partnership. It was applied by the EU to China as a result of the Tiananmen incident of 1989, with the aim of pushing China towards a more democratic, human-rights-oriented society.

Many debates have been carried out about lifting the arms embargo from the part of the EU, but they always turned out negatively as the US kept using its political influence on the Union to maintain the status quo.

The reason why the EU could not choose on its own is to be found in its structure. As shown by the different behavior of the 'big Three' in the embargo issue, the Union is not ready to function as a whole yet. Member states, notably the most influential ones, keep putting their domestic politics ahead of the EU interests, thus maintaining the fragmented structure that still prevents the EU from being as influential as it could be at the international level.

Thus, the aim of this paper is to give an overview on the EU relations with China, from the beginning to the arms embargo, and then analyzing the internal and external factors that have contributed to the current outcome on the matter, focusing on the big Three and the US influence, concluding with possible prospects for the future of Sino-EU relations.


1. Chronology of the partnership, 1975-1989

From diplomatic engagement to the arms embargo.

It wasn't before the late 70s that the European Union (then European Community) decided to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC for the first time.

The bases of the Sino-European cooperation were laid in 1975, when the European Union and the People's Republic of China reached an agreement on the beginning of diplomatic relations, an engagement that was then confirmed when the EEC Commission Vice President Christopher Soamas met with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, becoming the first EU Commissioner to ever visit China (European External Action Service, 2012).

It wasn't long before the two powers started thinking about benefits that could spring from such a partnership at the economic level. For this reason, in 1978, the EEC and China signed their first trade agreement, while also giving each other the so called Most Favored Nation treatment, and establishing the first mixed committee (the 'Joint Committee').

However, this agreement, however was far from comprehensive and wasn't enough to function as a regulation for such a complex and multifaceted economic cooperation as the one between China and the EEC. For this reason, in 1985, the two parties signed the "Sino-EC Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation". This new agreement was created using the 1978 Trade Agreement as a basis and expanding the covered fields and matters, involving thus such areas as trade, investment, cooperation for development, sustainable energy and environmental protection. In a way, this could be seen as the actual turning point in Sino-EU relations, and certainly, the ground-breaker for future close relations both in economic and political terms. From this moment on, trade volume between PRC and the EC started growing, creating a sort of counter-balance to the US and Soviet hegemony on trade and commerce that was dominating the world at the time.

In 1989, however, the tables turned. The massacre of Tiananmen was harshly denounced by the international community, and the EC did not just stand and watch. Jointly with the US, the EC imposed an arms embargo on China, while at the same time freezing economic and diplomatic relations altogether.

2. The shadows of Tiananmen: background of the arms embargo and the EU generalship towards China

Before recounting what happened in 1989, it is necessary to summarize the profound changes that were taking places in Chinese domestic politics since the 70s.

After the death of Mao, China started experiencing an unprecedented wind of freedom: the press, students, and scholars could finally debate about topics that, up to that point, were taboo. The 80s, thus, were a period of prosperity for China as a nation, with new markets opening up and a flourishing economy. However, the situation on the inside was far from optimal. As a result of the newly formed capitalism, the common conception that "the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer" became reality. By the end of the decade, many fragments of the Chinese population were frustrated with a corrupt government and increasingly poor standards of life (Vàmos, 2014). When the only leader seen as incorruptible, namely Hu Yaobang, died in 1989, citizens (mostly students) went into the streets to mourn the dead politician and peacefully protest against the government. However, as the number of demonstrators grew, the government decided to send the army to 'contain' the protest. It wasn't long before this containment became a true massacre, with 3000-7000 casualties among citizens and military personnel (the number being not verified because the PRC officially stated that actually only 241 people had lost their lives in the riots - evidence of the infamous Chinese lack of transparency) (van der Putten, 2007).

This was a great shock within China and outside, since the growing international political leverage of the country was abruptly undermined, and its trustworthiness and conceptual development severely questioned. At this point, the European Union was trapped in making the right choice: it could either choose to keep on working along with China, losing legitimacy at the international level and, most of all, the US trust; or choose to follow the hard line and join the US in imposing severe sanctions on the PRC, freezing the fruitful partnership with the Asian power, but maintaining a high profile at the international level while at the same time keeping the US as close as possible (Dai, 2006).

The decision was made during a European Council summit that was held in Madrid, in June 26-27, 1989, and was part of a broader document concerning external relations of the Community and behavior towards the Middle East and China. In particular, as stated in Annex II, pg.17 - "The European Council, recalling the Declaration of the Twelve of 6 June, strongly condemns the brutal repression taking place in China. [...] It solemnly requests the Chinese authorities to stop the executions and to put an end to the repressive actions against those who legitimately claim their democratic rights" (European Council, 1989). The document also stated a list of sanctions towards the PRC, which included points concerning the raising of the issue of human rights in China in the appropriate international forums, and the interruption by the Member States of the Community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China (European Council, Bull. EC 6- 1989, pg. 17).

This last item was the more famous and, theoretically, the strongest restrictive measure against China. But... was it? First of all, the sanction was nonetheless vague, and thus, the EC lacked consistency in applying it, as the Twelve interpreted it - and thus, behaved - in different ways. The embargo did not include any specific list of embargoed weapons or technological goods, and for this reason, the measure did not become coherent in its implementation and scope at the level of the Community (Kogan, 2005).

Second, different from the arms embargo imposed to China by the US in early 1990, the EU one was not actually legally binding, but more of a political commitment that all members should adopt and enforce because of political and legitimacy reasons (Archick, Grimmett, Kan, 2005).

So, the lack in legislation together with a lack in implementation resulted in member states keeping selling goods to China. These goods were defined as ‘dual-use technology products’ or ‘non-lethal defense items’, i.e. radar systems, aero-engines, communications systems, and even satellite technology. The commercial and military opportunities for European companies in China were huge, and for this reason, the European arms industry was attracted from such a fresh defense market as the Chinese one. Moreover, they wanted to take over what was a Russian hegemony up to that point: in 2002 alone, the import volume of military technology purchased by China amounted to $3.6 bn, most of which came from the Russian market (Archick, Grimmett, Kan, 2005).

In any case, the European Community was still having strong economic relations with China, embargo or not. However, it had to keep an eye on the human rights issue, and since China did not seem to be getting much better, with dozens of thousands or war prisoners being executed every year for the purpose of using their organs for experimenting (Branigan, 2014), the EC could not be fully committed without thinking about its own interests and legitimacy.

China was not like other countries upon which the EC had imposed other amrs embargoes in the past (i.e., 'pariah' countries such as Myanmar, Zimbabwe or Sudan). On the other hand, Member States were afraid about the use that China could make of the European military technology, considering the Taiwan issue (this will be more deeply analyzed in the chapters below).

For this reason, in 1998, the "Code of Conduct" was created.

What is the Code of Conduct?

The Code of Conduct on arms sales of the EU is a politically binding document whose aim was to create high common standards that EU members had to respect when selling arms or military-usable technology to third parties.

It is divided into two parts: a more theoretical one, where eight criteria are laid out to define duties and responsibilities resting on every member state's shoulders in case of arms export, and a more practical one, consisting of those operating principles ought to be used when applying such code (European Commission, 1998).

According to the Code, every member state pledges NOT to sell arms when:

  • the sale would violate the exporting state's commitments under the UN Charter or specific arms control agreements;
  • there is a "clear risk" that the weapons will be used for internal repression;
  • the arms could provoke or prolong armed conflict;
  • there is a "clear risk" that the arms would be used aggressively against another country;

Furthermore, member states have to take into account certain possibilities whenever deciding to approve arms export, and namely:

  • the risk of use of weapons against allies;
  • the risk of unintended diversion of technology;
  •  the importing state's record on terrorism, implementation of humanitarian law (non-use of force against civilians), and arms control agreements; § the effectiveness of the importing state’s export control laws and mechanisms;
  • the economic situation in the importing state, including relative levels of military and social spending (Federation of American Scientists, Arms Sales and Monitoring Project, Online issue, 2000).

The embargo was not accompanied by a sense of repulsion towards China and, above all, its markets and economy, and thus, the whole thing was perceived by China and some EU member states as just a "circumstantial choice", made upon a single event, that was restricting potential benefits for both parties.  However, the embargo could not be lifted in the blink of an eye. As stated in the European Commission issue concerning Sanctions, and also referring to the fundamental treaties of the EU, any decision to lift the arms embargo needed the unanimous agreement of all EU member states. The process itself could take place at the European Council, a meeting of EU heads of government, or at the monthly meetings of the foreign ministers.

So, at the European Council Meeting in Brussels in 2003, chief executives of the Member States invited their foreign ministers to reexamine the need for the arms embargo and arguments for and against its removal. As mentioned above, a number of EU leaders made statements that China was very different politically from other countries on which the EU had imposed arms embargoes, and EU leaders also recognized that China’s leadership had changed since 1989 and that there had been dramatic changes in Chinese society.

This was the first step towards a "cooperative reconciliation" between the EU and the PRC. Apart from the Brussels meeting, 2003 was a fruitful year. The European Security Strategy, adopted in December of the same year, is a clear example of engagement towards China, and of the spread feeling within the Union that closer cooperation with China was needed for growth and economic development. The document acknowledged the new status of China as a rising key player in the global arena, and also that it was in the best interests of the EU to make it a major target of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (European Council, 2003).

At this point, a question arises: Why keep the arms embargo? After all, the majority of the EU was convinced that the sanction was no longer necessary, and notably, the most influential members were actually the pioneers of the lift.

The reasons are to be found externally. In fact, even though a general sense of rapprochement towards China was dominating the entire Union, something kept it from making the decision in the end.

3. Internal feeling: lifting the embargo?

The EU was ready to lift the arms embargo, with the most influential member states being on the frontline of the matter: the sanction was outdated, and it was time to take the relationship further. Moreover, the EU history of sanctions towards international perpetrators against human rights showed that it wasn't always the best solution.

Much has been made of the failure of sanctions to deter Iraqi President Saddam’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the devastating effects of those sanctions on the civilian population (Rogers, 1996). On the other hand, it is commonly accepted that economic sanctions contributed to bring down the South African apartheid regime and weakened Milosevic’s Serbia.

However, as we have acknowledged going through the history of the Union and its process of imposition of sanctions, we can come to the conclusion that sanctions should be applied: a) unanimously, since any different behavior from the part of a Member State, especially when we talk about the most influential ones within the Union, would create turmoil and undermine coherence of action; b) rightly and fully - sanctions should not pose a barrier to the development and growth of the Union as a whole, since such situation would lead to anarchy within the EU borders, with Member States doing what they consider to be best for their own interest, and thus, fragmenting the Union, hindering its potential as a single entity.

Internal fragmentation is what is keeping the Union behind in its development as a single body. The way is yet to be paved towards the "harmonious Union" direction, and member states act as individual entities, with their individual domestic politics being at the core of their choices.

The domestic reasons of the big three: Germany, France and Britain.

Whenever the European Union is mentioned in any international dispute, the first countries to come to mind, for their development, wealth and international weight, are France, Germany and Britain.

Concerning the arms embargo on China, the Big Three (as they're called) have played a big role during the debate on the lift in 2003-2005. France and Germany were the' champions' of the lift and Britain did not hesitate to 'join the party'. With other members, France and Germany claimed that the embargo hindered stronger EU political and economic relations with China.


While visiting Beijing in December 2003, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, during a meeting with Wen Jianbao, stated that “the time had come” to lift the embargo (Schroeder, 2005). Germany was one of the strictest EU members in applying the embargo; nonetheless, its position was, for a long time, strongly in support of the lifting.  This was because of great, yet cautious, support from the German industry association, and especially, by the representatives of the shipbuilding and aerospace industries (Meyer-Wellmann, 2014). Germany switched its position on the lift with the arrival of Angela Merkel, who adopted a more cautious line with China, stating that Germany could possibly tolerate a lift of the embargo someday, but this should not happen at the cost of a terrible bust-up with the US.


In December 2003, during a summit of EU member states, French President Jacques Chirac took the lead among the other European leaders in referring the issue to their respective foreign ministers, urging them “to re-examine the question of the embargo on the sale of arms to China”. The French position on the matter reflected the country's strong nationalism as well as its foreign policy of that time: in the context of the French opposition to the 2003 Iraqi war, France was seeking independence from the US, and Chirac saw the opportunity to counterweight the American unilateralism through a closer relationship with the newly emerging China (Barluet, 2006). Furthermore, even though the trade issue was not publicly debated by French officials, rumor has it that the whole 'France vs Embargo' issue came out in the context of a huge arms deal between the European country and China (Bräuner, Bromley, Duchâtel, 2015).


The British government stepped into the dispute in 2005, when the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced that the United Kingdom agreed with what advised by the French and German governments, and thus was in favor of the lift of the embargo, as it "had run its course" (British Parliament, 2005). However, in the case of Britain, the major barrier was the US. The Bush administration seemed to be concerned about Straw's statement, and made clear that they were not comfortable with what they viewed as a possible 'equivocation' (Judy, 2004). Consequently, as US opposition towards Britain's position became more vibrant, and threats about withholding crucial military technology emerged, the British government stepped back, and became a great supporter of the retainment of the embargo. The reasons given concerned in fact human rights, and later on, the British government stated that, in order for a discussion about the lifting to be held, they needed to see "clear progress on the issue that necessitated the Embargo in the first place, namely civil and political rights" (British Parliament, 2011).

Conclusion: the vote.

The official proposal of December 2003 to lift the embargo had a rather expected, but definitely not reflective of the actual overall sentiment, result: the European Parliament rejected the lift by a landslide vote (373 in favor, 32 against) due to continuing violations of human rights. The European Parliament, before the Lisbon Treaty, did not have any authority in foreign policy making and was only an advisory body, but the landslide result sent a strong signal to heads of government across the EU that the move was not the wisest and the most popular.

In conclusion, we can say that the internal overall feeling converged to the lift of the embargo, with the big Three (together with other 'first-class' EU countries such as Italy or Spain) being all in favor of the removal of the sanction. And yet, the 'no' obtained a landslide victory over the 'yes' at the ballot.

As shown by the British case analysis, so, it is fair to state that the most vibrant winds of opposition came from the outside, and namely, from the US.

But, what were the US interests on the retainment of the embargo?

4. The external factor: The US and the Taiwan Dilemma

The US as a veto player.

As soon as the US acknowledged the fact that the removal of the arms embargo on China by the EU was an actual possibility, intelligence officers were sent to several EU member states to convince them that the embargo should remain in place. Following the January 2004 Foreign Ministers Council on External Affairs decision to look into the feasibility of the lift, US diplomacy decided to stand up: a number of complaints were issued to the EU, arguing that the EU embargo was complementary to the US embargo, and both were imposed for the same reasons. If the EU were to lift it, it would have been considered as a move against the shared political and moral views between the two Western powers (Kreutz, 2004).

In light of this, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would restrict military exports and technology-sharing with those European countries that sell arms to China. This move was representative of the US double-faced strategy towards China: working towards a better integration of the PRC in the international community, while at the same time containing the country militarily and economically. (Crossick et al., 2008)

A strong cooperation between a rising power and an amalgamation of developed countries could give both parties an economic and political leverage that would dominate the global environment in the future.

This was the idea lying at the base of the defiant attitude of the US towards a closer relationship between the PRC and the EU. The US feared that the deepening of Sino-European political relations reflected a sort of a hidden agenda having the scope to create a multipolar world to counter US influence.

Furthermore, given the US commitment to Taiwan, there were fears in Washington that balance of forces between China and Taiwan would be affected were the PRC to acquire sophisticated arms (Crossick et al., 2008).

The Taiwan Dilemma.

Taiwan is not an issue concerning the US only. The PRC's "one-China" policy is at the core of its relations with the international community, and it was unanimously accepted by the whole EU, as well as the US.

Taiwan is the Union's third largest trade partner in Asia. As such, even though this cooperation was handled cautiously because of possible Chinese repercussions, Taiwanese interests could not be ignored.

Apart from this, the EU had little to do with Taiwan, and the main reason why the issue mattered to the member states was because of its connection with the US.

It is well known, in fact, that the US presence in the area is strong, and therefore, Taiwan is an issue that the American government has dealt with very carefully. The US promised assistance and military support to Taiwan in case of an attack with the Taiwan Relations Act, signed in 1979, while at the same time maintaining good (at least apparently) relations with China, not without criticism from the Chinese part. Therefore, it is fair to state that the US has more than one reason for the arms embargo on China to be retained: first, it contains China's economic and, most of all, military rise; and second, keeping the status quo, the US can work more safely to maintain Cross-strait stability, so as to avoid the recurrence of another crisis like the one that already happened in 1995-1996 (Archick, Grimmett, Kan, 2005).

In such a delicate scenario, China's passing of an anti-secession law in 2005, with explicit reference to "being ready to use non-peaceful means" against Taiwan if it was to formally declare its independence, was the game-breaker.

With the US already opposing the choice of lifting the embargo, the EU found a formal reason to 'change its mind' and drop the entire plan.

Since 2005, the question has been brought up from time to time during EU official meetings, with scarce results. China itself reduced its pressure on the matter, knowing that, in any case, its trade and its 'peaceful' rise are not compromised.

5. Conclusions

" a stronger Europe with a common strategic vision is also a Europe capable of consolidating relationships with the other great partners " (European Commission in the European Security Strategy, 2003)

The European Union ranks first in China's list of trading partners in terms of imports, with a total turnover of 168,489 mio EUR, and third in terms of exports, with a total volume of 260,159 mio EUR (Eurostat, figures referring to the year 2013).

These figures show how far the Sino-EU cooperation has come to this day. The "strategic partnership" between the two powers is now very well settled and still growing, finding its way to the top seats in international affairs.

It is time for the EU to raise its profile in the international scenario, and Beijing can surely be identified as an essential counterweight to US hegemony. As stated by David Shambaugh (2004), the Sino-EU relationship can be described as a real emerging "axis", which should be based upon three pillars: engaging China through multilateral institutions that enhance its participation in international affairs; intensifying bilateral Sino-European ties; and improving China’s “domestic capacity” to govern.

Due to the existing political pressure at the international level, it is probably not time yet to lift the arms embargo on China. However, cooperation should be promoted and strengthened, as both China and the EU seek to play a greater role in the global arena. After all, the development that we have witnessed over the last decades was achieved with the embargo still in practice: it is possible to deepen cooperation without creating instability.

The EU should also work internally to promote coherence and harmonious action. The development of a common European identity has long been at the core of international relations' debates, and as the world evolves and new powers emerge, it becomes more and more urgent to give up on some national pride in order to gain greater leverage at the global level.

EU-US relations are strong and should not be undermined. However, it is clear that a gap exists; both in terms of development and international influence, and the EU should now work on its weaknesses in order to start cooperating with the EU not as a subordinate, but as peer.

China, from its part, should abandon the view of being discriminated against and start acting as the now assessed power that it is. With a seat in the UN council and a loud political voice, it should give the world, and in this case the EU, the possibility to establish economic and political cooperation without having to worry about the shadows of death, hunger and poverty - three nouns that are definitely not appropriate for the second largest economy in the world.

With this kind of cooperation from the Chinese part, the EU could lift the arms embargo in the future, opening up new markets and possibly creating a new kind of relationship. Were China to gain the EU and the international trust, the PLA could even become a precious ally in matters of international security.

Gianluca Scaglione is a Master's degree student at the Department of International Relations and European Affairs at the University of Bologna, Italy. He has also studied "Relations Internationales et Diplomacie" at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium. He is currently specializing in Asian studies, particularly focusing on China and South Korea. His research interests include democracy issues, human rights, peacekeeping and middle powers.


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2.         B. Gill, M. Murphy, "China-Europe relations: Implications and policy responses for the United States", CSIS, May 2008;

3.         British Parliament, House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees, "Government response to First Joint Report", July 2011;

4.         British Parliament, House of Commons, Select Committee on International Development, ‘Examination of witnesses’, 12 January 2005;

5.         D. Judy, “US hits at EU move to lift arms ban on China”, The Financial Times, 2 April 2004;

6.         D. Shambaugh, "China and Europe: the emerging axis", Current History, September 2004;

7.         E. Kogan, “The European Union Defense Industry and the Appeal of the Chinese Market”. (Report, Studien und Berichte zur Sicherheitspolitik, Schriftenreihe der Landesverteidigungsakademie), January 2005;

8.         E. S. Rogers, "Using Economic Sanctions to Prevent Deadly Conflict", Discussion Paper 96- 02, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 1996;

9.         European Commission, Code of Conduct on Arms Sales, 1998;

10.       European Commission. “Sanctions or restrictive measures”, Online source: http://eeas.europa.eu/cfsp/sanctions/docs/index_en.pdf;

11.       European Council Official Statement, Madrid, 1989, 26-27 June;

12.       F. P. Van der Putten, "The EU arms embargo, Taiwan, and security interdependence between China, Europe and the United States", China and the world, special edition of the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, Joseph Tse-Hei Lee ed., July 2007;

13.    &n

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