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Normative Power and Vested Interests – The Case of EU and China’s Arms Trade Policy

Normative Power and the EU

 The human rights agenda features heavily on the rhetoric and policies of the EU, and thus enables the EU to capitalize on a new identity, formed by shared idealistic values held by member states. European Union is unable to exert its identity as a strong and legitimate normative power because security and material interests of the European Union constantly 1) underpin and 2) undermine idealistic values.

EU-CHINA Arms Trade Policy

The EU reinforced export criteria of arms through the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports. In tandem with the practice of developing foreign policy with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, this code of conduct has also reinforced the propagation of upholding human rights values. Criterion 2 of the Code of Conduct for example stipulates that member states should not give out an export license to another country if there is a risk of arms being used for repression, and that member states should always take into account the equipment being exported to countries with serious violations of human rights. Before the policy articulations were in place, the European community had already placed an arms embargo on China in 1989. This was following the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989, and the government’s reaction to student demonstrations.This also articulated the EU’s firm stance against violence and human rights violations. Since the embargo, China has articulated formal and informal requests to end to embargo.

1) Material
The arms embargo, as a foreign policy document, is problematic in nature. This is because of it is ambiguous and it is not legally binding. Member states also have final say on what weapons can be exported to China, basing their decision on the national export control and guidelines and regulations, and not the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports. As a result, arms trade still continues between member states of the EU and China. As the EU tries to expand its economy, it views China as a significant trade partner. China’s call for lifting the embargo was coupled with promises of possible economic partnerships and improvement of relations between the two powers in future. This has prompted several EU member state to sincerely consider lifting the arms embargo, without deliberating the improvement human rights conditions in China. The EU’s dependence on its economic “strategic partnership” with China makes it impossible for the EU to ignore pressures from China to lift the embargo. The EU arms manufacturing industry is highly dependent on arms trade with China for the bulk of its revenues. The debate to lift the arms embargo is also largely prompted by the fact that EU arms producers could largely profit from the lifting of the arms embargo, as it would promote arms sales from China’s large procurement budget.

2) Security

One of the considerations when placing the arms embargo was that the EU was concerned with China’s growing military capabilities, and what this would mean for Taiwan and the balance of power in the western Pacific. Any measure to curb further militarization in China, while framed along the discourse of ideational values such as peace, non-violence and human rights, was in fact a means to maintain East Asia’s strategic balance and contain tensions between US-China relations. Thus, the motives to institute an arms embargo were not purely ideational; security interests underpin the promotion of human rights and thus weaken the legitimacy of the EU as a normative power. EU-China relations are largely conducted with considerations to relations each part has with the US. France and Germany had led the call for the end of the embargo, with French President “dubbing the arms embargo as outdated.” The US expressed strong disapproval to the notion of lifting the ban, and threatened to disallow defense technology transfers to Europe if they decided to end the arms embargo.While the EU has reiterated that ending the ban would be a “symbolic gesture”, United States has continued to place pressure on the EU to carefully consider its next move, and the political repercussions should it choose to pursue a strategic partnership with China at the expense of the relationship it has with the United States.

3) Question of Human Rights

The EU has not enforced concrete conditions and it has not shown any form of commitment to retain the ban until tangible improvements are made to human rights conditions in China. EU member states do not openly condemn the state of human rights conditions in China, often citing false improvements in the state of human rights conditions in China. Secondly, the problem of double standards emerges. The fact that there are no conditionality clauses enforced by the EU, prompts the question of why conditionality is strictly enforced in some EU foreign policy in some cases but not others. This harms external perceptions of EU normative power credibility.

Given the tension between ideational, normative values and vested interests, The EU continues to face growing pressure to establish a credible and coherent identity as a Normative Power.

(Aishwarya Kumar)

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