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Hardly a "presentational problem"

Posted by Richard Wednesday, January 19, 2005

You can half see see Jack Straw's point when, on BBC Radio 4's World at One today, he spoke on the China arms embargo, saying that it was currently "very tightly drawn", so lifting it would not make any significant different.

What he did not say – and, course the BBC did not ask him – was that arms sales from EU member states almost doubled its arms sales to China between 2002 and 2003, totalling €416m ($544m) in 2003 against €210m for 2002. In effect, the embargo has ceased to have any meaningful effect, as it is largely being ignored.

Here, Blair might not have his hands clean. It turns out that the UK is also a major arms supplier to China, with sales of €112m in 2003, coming third after France, which granted €171m of licences and Italy at €127m, all significantly up on the previous year. This might explain why he is so willing to go along with his EU "partners" (see previous posting) and support the lifting of the embargo.

However, Jack Straw is wholly wrong if he sees the lifting of the embargo, viz-à-viz the United States, as a “presentational problem”, thinking that as long as he can explain it to the Americans they will fall in behind the UK.

The Washington Times, yesterday ran a long piece by Bill Gertz, headed: "China builds up strategic sea lanes", detailing how China is building up military forces and setting up bases along sea lanes from the Middle East to project its power overseas and protect its oil shipments.

This is according to a previously undisclosed internal report prepared for defence secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, which states that "China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China's energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives."

This is known as the "string of pearls" strategy, with China setting up bases and diplomatic ties stretching from the Middle East to southern China that includes a new naval base under construction at the Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Beijing already has set up electronic eavesdropping posts at Gwadar in the country's southwest corner, the part nearest the Persian Gulf. The post is monitoring ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea, the report said.

China also is building up its military forces in the region to be able to "project air and sea power" from the mainland and Hainan Island. China recently upgraded a military airstrip on Woody Island and increased its presence through oil drilling platforms and ocean survey ships.

What must really worry the Americans is the report's findings that: "China... is looking not only to build a blue-water navy to control the sea lanes, but also to develop undersea mines and missile capabilities to deter the potential disruption of its energy supplies from potential threats, including the US Navy, especially in the case of a conflict with Taiwan."

This requires developing weapons for sea-lane control, building new warships equipped with long-range cruise missiles, submarines and undersea mines. China also is buying aircraft and long-range target acquisition systems, including optical satellites and maritime unmanned aerial vehicles – much of which it hopes to get from EU suppliers, tied in with the Galileo satellite navigation programme, which it will use for the guidance systems.

Crucially, this focus on the naval build-up is a departure from China's past focus on ground forces, and directly challenges US Naval supremacy in the region.

No matter how hard Jack Staw tries, a move by the EU to make arms sales to China even easier than it is already is not going to be viewed by Washington as a "presentational problem".