China: EU Arms Trade Embargo

– in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 12th January 2004.

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Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Labour 2:59 pm, 12th January 2004

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will support the resolution passed by the European Parliament on 18 December 2003 to maintain the European Union embargo on trade in arms with the People's Republic of China.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, the European Council agreed on 12 December 2003 to invite the General Affairs and External Relations Council to re-examine the question of the embargo on the sale of arms to China. Her Majesty's Government welcome the review, and Ministers are currently considering the United Kingdom's position. In the mean time, we shall continue fully to implement the arms embargo.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Labour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. She is aware that, in common with a number of Members of this House and another place, I visited Taiwan over the New Year. Does she agree that it would be quite wrong to drop the embargo on arms sales to the PRC until some progress is made with the development of human rights in the PRC, on which so little progress has been made in recent years, and until it drops its military threat against Taiwan? Should not the removal of the 500 missiles that are aimed at Taiwan be an absolute precondition for the resumption of any arms sales to the PRC? Do the Government believe that the defensive referendum, which is to be held in Taiwan in March, is entirely a matter for the people of Taiwan and not for the PRC?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, as I have indicated to your Lordships, the matter is under consideration among Ministers at the moment. I agree with my noble friend on the points that he raises and that human rights will be a very important issue in considering the lifting of the embargo. I am of course aware of the visit of my noble friend to Taiwan and I assure him that the Government attach great importance to the avoidance of conflict in the Taiwan Strait. We take every opportunity to convey to the Chinese Government, and through informal channels to the Taiwanese authorities, our strong opposition to the use of force or to any action that raises possible areas of tension across the Taiwan Strait. All the questions raised by my noble friend are important and they are precisely the issues that exercise Her Majesty's Government in coming to a decision on our position.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, while it must be recognised that these days the PRC Government are changing their attitude and are approaching their foreign policy in a rather different way, does not the Minister agree that in reviewing this matter it is not only a question of not using arms for internal repression, but also a question of not selling arms to China that will be used to promote its re-export trade to the world arms market in which it is a major and quite dangerous player? Will the Minister pass on her views to her German colleague in the European Union that the idea being discussed in the EU of selling a plutonium plant to the People's Republic of China is a very bad one indeed?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, I believe that our colleagues in Germany and France will press for a discussion on this matter when the General Affairs Council meets on 26 January. I remind the noble Lord that one of the views that I have heard expressed very forcefully is that in the event of a decision—of course it is some way off—to lift the arms embargo, the European Union code of practice on arms exports is a very effective means of limiting the arms trade. The noble Lord knows that increasing the possibility of internal repression mitigates against arms being exported. However, the questions raised by the noble Lord about the stability of the region or the possibility of enhancing conflict in the region are matters that would have to be considered very carefully under the EU code of practice, which in many ways is a better instrument for arms regulation.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in opposition the Labour Party was in favour of much tougher restrictions on arms sales? Should not the party push within the European Union for the EU not only to toughen up its already useful controls, but also to move for stricter global regulation of arms? Already there are too many surplus arms sloshing around the world. Could we trade off a move towards a removal of the embargo on China with a re-examination of the tightness of EU controls?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, the noble Lord will not be surprised to learn that those very thoughts exercise Her Majesty's Government at the moment. It is a negotiating stance that comprehended not only the issues of how the arms trade itself works around the world, but also the points raised by my noble friend a moment ago when considering human rights, which are the points that need to be considered. I say to the noble Lord that of course we were very tough on this issue in opposition, as we are in Government because we now have the European code, which this Government originally introduced, which we exhorted our colleagues in Europe to adopt and which I am happy to say is now something that runs not only for the United Kingdom, but also for all our colleagues in Europe. I believe that that is something of which to be proud.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, while welcoming the connection that the Minister has made between the arms trade and human rights, can she tell us when Her Majesty's Government last raised specific issues concerning political and religious violations of human rights with the Government of China, in particular the suppression of the Falung Gong, the suppression of the underground House Church Movement in China, the occupation of Tibet, the suppression of political liberties and in particular the continuation of the one-child policy in China, a policy which makes it the only country in the world where it is illegal to have a brother or a sister and where women are forcibly sterilised when they do not accept the domestic laws?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, the issues rightly raised by the noble Lord are precisely those that concern Her Majesty's Government. He has enumerated them. They are raised when Ministers from the United Kingdom have exchanges with their opposite numbers. I can think of numerous occasions. I am very happy to write to the noble Lord with the most recent examples of when those issues were raised. I would like the noble Lord to bear in mind that it is important that we continue to have this critical dialogue with the Chinese. As has been acknowledged elsewhere in the House, progress is being made on these issues, albeit not as much or as quickly as some would like. The possibility of looking again at some parts of our relationship with China allows us the opportunity to raise again the very important issues that the noble Lord has enumerated.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, does this argument take us right back to the issue of whether we should have a defence export scrutiny committee, about which the Government still have not made up their minds?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is an extremely eloquent advocate of such a committee. In some parts of government the points that he raises on that matter command a great deal of sympathy. However, the way in which we scrutinise the export of arms from this country is, as I know, extraordinarily detailed. I have seen that as a defence Minister, as a DTI Minister and now as a Foreign Office Minister. I assure him that when officials undertake the initial scrutiny, any export licences that are of real concern are referred to Ministers and we are accountable directly to Parliament for the decisions that we take. I believe that our system is a very robust one, although I agree with the noble Lord that, like most systems, it could always do with looking at again.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, would the Minister consider, at the same time as we look into ending the arms embargo, better measures to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression in the future by enhancing her status in the international community? If we cannot recognise Taiwan as an independent country, which it is, in a legal sense, should we try to ensure the admission of Taiwan to international bodies such as the World Health Organisation?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, I understand why the noble Lord raises those questions. I understand that his motivation is entirely benign. However, I say to him that any recognition of that kind—it would be a recognition that would cause some anxiety in Beijing—is bound to raise international tensions between Taiwan and China. Laudable as much of the motivation is behind his question, the noble Lord must also consider the outcomes of increasing the tension that would inevitably follow any such move.