France’s policy towards the lifting of the EU arms embargo on China (2003-2010)

by on Tuesday, 20 July 2010 Comments

The EU arms embargo on China and France’s policy

After the tragic events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4 1989, the European Union member states convened on June 27 in Madrid to announce several diplomatic and economic sanctions, such as an embargo on trade in arms with China. France was one of the first nations to show its disapproval of China’s actions, but was also one of the first European countries to restore diplomatic ties with China at the beginning of the 1990s. During this period sanctions to isolate China were gradually abandoned. However, the arms embargo has remained in force. At the start of the 21st century, as China’s economic power grows rapidly, the embargo has become a major point of concern and contention among Western countries. European countries have a great economic interest in China’s growing market, especially in supplying Beijing’s rapid military modernization. The EU arms embargo is in fact a hindrance to commercial exchanges between Europe and China, and to the improvement of their diplomatic relations.

France has searched to improve its relations with China for economic and political interests. Sino-French relations were particularly important during Chirac’s two terms in office, whereas during Sarkozy’s current term in office relations with China have been through both times of trouble and of reconciliation. Chirac and Sarkozy follow the “Gaullism tradition” (a French political movement based on Charles de Gaulle’s thought and action during World War II), and both support lifting the arms embargo on China. They believe that the embargo is not legally binding, and since the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports was adopted in June 1998, it should only be considered as a “symbol”. However, the details of Chirac and Sarkozy's policies toward this issue vary slightly.

Chirac’s foreign policy (2003-2007)

The French Government under Jacques Chirac sought to balance the American hegemonic power and to restore France’s status in Europe and the world by establishing closer relations with China and European countries, such as Germany.

Because of Chirac’s keen interest in China, Sino-French relations were at their highest status from 1995 to 2007. Chirac’s administration strongly supported lifting the arms embargo. According to him, the embargo on China is an “anachronism”. In 2003, Chirac used his right of veto in the United Nations against the invasion of Iraq when France was considered the leading nation to rise against the American power. However, the United States did not comply with the decision of the international community and pursued its goal to attack Iraq with British support. Consequently, as Chirac was against the Bush administration’s policy of “unilateralism and preemptive war”, he became even more assertive to achieving his goal of forming a multipolar world with the support of China.

France and Germany were the two most important proponents of lifting the arms embargo and had a significant role in influencing the decisions of other European countries. However, despite France’s efforts to influence its European counterparts, mainly because of American pressure and the implementation of the “Anti-Secession Law” by China in March 2005 (to avoid any declaration of independence in Taiwan), the intention of other European countries to lift the arms embargo was abandoned in June 2005.

Sarkozy’s foreign policy (2007-2010)

In May 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France and France’s foreign policy toward China and the United States began to gradually shift. Indeed, at the end of 2007, American’s relative power was weakened by the war in Iraq and the world financial crisis. Moreover, China’s rapid economic and military growth was shifting the balance of power both in East Asia and throughout the world. In order to adapt to this new balance of power, Sarkozy decided to improve transatlantic relations in order to pursue France’s economic interests as Paris coped with the economic crisis (such as accelerating France’s full-reintegration into NATO’s military command structure in 2009). Furthermore, like Chirac, Sarkozy emphasizes a multilateral framework to deal with international issues, which is closer to the view of the present American president, Barack Obama.

In contrast to Paris’s strong stance in 2004 in favor of lifting the embargo, Sarkozy has been less active on this issue with China than his predecessor. He supports the EU position on the arms embargo, which encourages improvements of China’s human rights policy and environmental issues as a condition for lifting the embargo. In fact, Sarkozy is more attracted and fascinated by the United States. He is not as interested and knowledgeable on China as Chirac was.

Nowadays the embargo still creates diplomatic discord between the European countries and Washington. In January 2010 the issue was raised again by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as soon as he assumed the EU’s rotating presidency. However, so far Spain’s request has not altered the EU’s position. According to the European Union, China’s human rights performance is still too weak.

Conclusion: Comparison between Sarkozy and Chirac

The political decisions taken by Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy to emphasize France’s position in the world are purely driven by political and economic considerations for the sake of promoting French national interests. The French presidents are both in favor of a “multipolar world”. They have promoted closer relations with great powers such as China, the US and Germany.

Sarkozy and Chirac have different characters and interests in the world which has hugely influenced their objectives and decisions in France’s foreign policy. Chirac was closer to China, for example, he had promoted numerous cultural exchanges (such as the “cross-years” from 2003 to 2005), whereas Sarkozy is currently closer to the United States and the European Union. Consequently, their support for lifting the arms embargo differs. In following their convictions, they have both tried to adapt to the situations of the world and the power shift, which gradually occurred since the start of the 21st century: from a strong US unilateralism to China’s impressive growing economic power.

Painting by B.V.

 

Lise Darbas

I am in Taipei since 2007. I am a student in International Relations at National Taiwan University. 
I like to study Political Sciences and Chinese.

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