Friday, May 14, 2004

A taste of things to come

Source: Financial Times, and others.

With Wen Jiabao, China's premier having recently toured EU member state capitals – including London – in an attempt to get the arms embargo imposed in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square massacre lifted, the US House of Representatives has fired a warning shot across the bows of the Union.

It is threatening to restrict the sale of US military equipment and technologies to its European allies if the arms embargo is lifted. Legislation was approved by the House armed services committee late on Wednesday that would impose new export restrictions on sales of US defence and sensitive commercial technologies to any country selling arms to China.

In addition, the committee adopted an amendment that would bar the Pentagon for five years from doing any business with a company that sells arms to China, a prohibitive penalty for any of the European defence companies.

The EU has already eased its interpretation of the embargo, allowing sales of about $200m in "non-lethal" military equipment to China in 2002, and has entered into an agreement with China for the joint development of the Galileo satellite positioning system, which has important military applications.

Now, the French and German governments, in support of their respective arms manufacturers, are lobbying other EU member states to lift the embargo completely. They are anxious to capitalise on the increasing arms purchases by China, valued at $2 billion a year.

However, if the Franco-German axis is successful, this could have a significant impact on the availability of US weapons to Britain. At risk is the $200bn Joint Strike Fighter project, on which Britain is relying to equip its two new carriers, which will form the bulk of its naval strength in the first half of this Century.

Not only would this be denied to Britain, but there is even the prospect that the current administration’s attempts to ease controls on sales of other military goods to Europe would be blocked, seriously affecting the efficiency of Britain arms forces which rely more on US equipment than any other country in the EU.

Once again, it seems, Britain’s own interests are being put at risk by its EU partners. If the UK continues down the path of integrating defence and security policies – as proposed in the EU constitution - it could find itself treated as an inseparable part of the EU bloc, for the purposes of the sale of arms and other strategic materials.

Europhiles should, perhaps, be asked if this is a price worth paying, for a constitution that most British people do not want anyway.