China, Europe and Strategic Intent: A New Role for the UK?

China testing its latest stealth jet during Robert Gates' visit is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cooling Sino-US relations. This presents an opportunity for the UK and the EU to engage in a strategic defence discussion with China.

By Alexander Neill for

In recent weeks reports have emerged suggesting that the EU arms embargo on China, in place since the Tiananmen incident of 1989, could be lifted in the near future. This has caused backtracking in Brussels and reddened faces for the EU's foreign affairs leadership at a particularly awkward moment.

If the US congress ever wanted an excuse to dampen European zeal towards lifting an arms export ban on China (the Nobel Peace Prize fiasco notwithstanding), the maiden flight of China's new fifth generation J-20 stealth fighter during US Defence Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing is an unrivalled political windfall.

The provocative timing of this fracas is aggravated by the possibility of the US government authorising a new $4 billion package to Taiwan to upgrade its F-16 fleet, casting a shadow over Hu Jintao's forthcoming visit to Washington.

The UK government has been forced to publicly restate its opposition to a lifting of the embargo at a particularly sensitive time - during the visit to the UK of Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the man tipped to become China's Prime Minister next year.

In recent years the pace of China's military modernisation has increased, causing alarm within Washington, which has reverberated within the defence and security community in Whitehall. This concern has been rammed home in Brussels by Washington in the wake of reports of an imminent drive to lift the embargo.

The last two decades have witnessed a well-funded and impressive programme of military transformation of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) from a mass army towards a military capable of short-duration, high-intensity operations against high-tech adversaries.

The debate over the EU arms embargo and the PLA's snub of the Defence Secretary has laid bare the global shift in power to Asia, rightly illustrated by High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union, Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

These events have also exposed gaps in the strategic debate over Europe's allegiance to the United States and the degree to which Europe should hedge in its engagement with China, increasingly regarded as the EU's new overdraft guarantor.

The Pentagon's concern is centred on the prospect of its Pacific forces finding themselves at the sharp end of PLA weapons technology sold to China by Europe, should the US be called upon to intervene in a war between China and Taiwan.

The European defence industry will no doubt have been lobbying Brussels and European leaders over the need to re-examine the strictures of the arms embargo. They will assert that China has armed itself admirably over the last decade, even with the embargo in place.

They will also point out that the US itself has, on occasion, attempted to subvert its own embargo. Their strongest argument will be the sales revenue available to Europe and the desperately needed boost to European exports to China, helping to narrow the EU-China trade deficit.

But when, in 2004, the EU explored the possibility of lifting the embargo, its delegation to Washington was stonewalled by Congress. The crestfallen delegation returned to Brussels and embarked on an attempt to supersede the terms of the embargo with a tightened arms export code of conduct and an accompanying tool-box of measures to assure compliance.

The Bush administration was then fuming at the sale of the Galileo satellite global positioning technology to China, arguing that China's military targeting systems could be enhanced. US diplomats will no doubt recently have pointed this out to their counterparts in Brussels, as reports emerge of China's new carrier-killing capability.

Many analysts have focused their attention on China's domestic Research and Development capabilities, the procurement of foreign weapons systems and organisational and doctrinal reform within the PLA. Of key concern is China's 'leap-frog' policy of informationisation and its drive towards asymmetric warfare capabilities, C4ISR and space operations.

The need for debate on China's military modernisation

The EU is China's largest trading partner, and Europe's economy is larger than those of both the US and China. Given the interdependency of the European and Chinese economies, an intra-EU debate about the risks and opportunities associated with anchoring Europe's economic future to that of China is long overdue.

This concern was echoed by a March 2010 House of Lords report Stars and Dragons: The EU and China in which Lord Teverson, Chairman of the Lords EU Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Policy called on the EU to 'substantially raise its game in improving the relationship with Beijing'.

European society at large has certainly become more wary of China's rise, but this does not seem to have translated into a public debate on the security implications of Chinese military spending commensurate with that of its accelerating GDP.

Most Europeans, like their counterparts in the West Pacific, are apparently content to take a more introspective view of security, finding it difficult to make a causal link between their national security and that of China.

As demonstrated by simmering tension on the Korean Peninsula, more flash-points currently exist in East Asia than in Europe, and China has a role to play in all of these potential contingencies, many of which are directly linked to the relationship between the United States and its littoral allies on the West Pacific Rim.

The UK role in military relations with China

If a clash were to take place between US and Chinese forces in East Asia, what role, if any, would the UK and Europe play? This problem has emerged at a time when UK bilateral military engagement with China has been improving. The PLA has increased its bilateral programme of visits with the MoD, and continues to show an interest in expanding military exchanges.

Herein lies an opportunity for the UK's approach to China's military. The strategic backdrop for this debate should be the transition from the 'unipolar moment' of the United States to a multi-polar world in which new rising Asian powers form the nucleus of the shift of global power from west to east.

Although the UK has restated its opposition to the arms embargo on China, it is not necessarily beholden to join the US in intervention in a cross-strait conflict, even if it could. This means that the MoD does not have to waste energy in calling for transparency in Chinese military spending.

As Major General Luo Yuan, Deputy Secretary General of the China Society of Military Science, stated during Robert Gates' visit, in his opinion 'the transparency of strategic intentions comes first, and transparency of combat capability is of secondary importance by comparison'.

Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie has said that Sino-US military relations will suffer setbacks as long as the US continues to arm Taiwan. The UK remains unfettered by this problem, presenting an opportunity to exchange views on the more important issues of fathoming strategic intent rather than capability.

In the post-Strategic Defence and Security Review environment, there is a unique opportunity for the UK to share ideas on China's strategic vision with the PLA. This may help both China and the US avoid miscalculation and escalation in an increasingly volatile Pacific theatre.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Alexander Neill

Senior Research Fellow, Asia Studies

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