China: EU Arms Sales Embargo

– in the House of Lords at 11:20 am on 24th March 2005.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 11:20 am, 24th March 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What effect they assess that the lifting of the European Union embargo on weapons to China will have on relations between the United Kingdom, Japan and Taiwan.

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, there has been no decision on lifting the embargo; and to support any such decision this Government would have to be satisfied that it was the right thing to do. The lifting of the embargo should not result in the increase of arms exports to China, as the European Council has made clear. The United Kingdom Government have been discussing the issue with all our friends, including through our official relationship with Japan and our unofficial relationship with Taiwan. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, there are problems now because of the concern raised by the anti-secession law passed on 14 March in China.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I am very grateful for that reply, and for the change of tone—indeed, the change of policy—that it implies. I am sure that the Minister is aware that it is not only the Americans who are concerned, but that many people in Japan and the Pacific region regard it as absolute madness that anyone should propose lifting the weapons embargo now, with the increasing tension in the Taiwan straits and the massive build-up of Chinese military expenditure.

If the United Kingdom's policy is now to toughen the embargo with a new code of conduct, which Ministers have said is the case, why do we not just go ahead and do that, and reassure our best friends in the Pacific—that is, Japan, the Americans and others—maintaining the collaboration with the US industry that is needed by our industries and leaving our European neighbours to do what they wish? If they want to damage themselves and damage stability, let them do so. Why do we not just go ahead with our own policy, in our own interests?

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 we have discussed before, although the word "embargo" implies a total ban on exports of all things on the military list, as the noble Lord will know, there are exports of goods from the military list. Those were published last year, and there were something in the region of 140 or so individual export licences, not all of them from the military list but relating to other matters of concern in that area.

The fact is that there is not a change of policy on this, but there is certainly a change of nuance in my Answer. Let me be clear: it is entirely right and logical that we should proceed in lifting the embargo and strengthening the EU code, because it is already a better instrument for ensuring that we have proper regulation of arms exports. That is the logical position. But I agree that in view of what happened in China on 14 March in relation to the secession legislation that was passed, a different political landscape is emerging. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, when he was interviewed on this matter last week, said that there were now political problems, and greater political problems than there had been, in lifting that embargo. The shift is inherent, of course, in the anti-secession legislation passed in China.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, given the size of the Chinese armed forces and the size of the arsenal that they already have, is it felt that by lifting the embargo the perceived danger from China will increase—or will it remain the same?

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, my honest opinion is that the position remains the same. It is enormously important to remember that the embargo currently in force is not legally binding. The code of conduct that we are talking about is already legally binding on this country and is a stronger instrument. The embargo is on lethal weapons alone; there is no embargo on many technical matters that the Chinese wish to acquire. The way in which we regulate those exports is already under the EU code of conduct.

The position logically has not changed at all, but I agree that there is a different political environment because of what has happened in China.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, regardless of the practical effects of lifting the embargo, it is a diplomatic signal of some importance? Even before 14 March, the question was really whether there had been a change in human rights approaches in China that warranted such a lifting. Does she agree that there had been no change?

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 do not agree that there had been no change. There have been changes. There are still very considerable concerns over human rights in China, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, is aware. I do not believe that there has been no change at all; there have been changes in a number of respects. There is certainly a much better dialogue with China on human rights than there was when the embargo was imposed.

The noble Lord has simply used different language from the language that I used. What he called a diplomatic signal I called a political message. I believe that we are pretty much on the same line over this.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Labour

My Lords, my noble friend's announcement of the change of nuance will be very widely welcomed. Does she agree with Condoleezza Rice, who said last week in very forceful terms that as the United States has had responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the Pacific region, and particularly in the Taiwan straits, since 1950, it has a very legitimate interest in the outcome of these negotiations involving the sale of arms from Europe? Does she not agree that it would be inconceivable that weapons made in France or Germany could be used against American warships?

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, there are so many assumptions in the question that my noble friend asked that it is difficult to disentangle them. The code itself would ensure that that sort of weaponry was not exported to China, so under the code I do not believe that it would be possible for such exports to be made by a European country. Of course, we have a great deal of agreement with the Americans on matters of foreign policy. But I am bound to say at your Lordships that I usually stand at this Dispatch Box defending the fact that the United Kingdom has an independent foreign policy. We shall take a decision about the matter, having consulted all our friends and allies. We shall take the decision that we believe is right and in the interests of this country.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, if we do retain an independent foreign policy, I am not sure that I heard the Minister reply to the question from my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford on whether the Government were considering going it alone on this matter.

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 do not really see that the question of "going it alone", as the noble Lord puts it, arises here. The Question before us at the moment relates to a European embargo or moving to a European code. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked me why we could not keep the embargo in place and move to toughening the code at the same time. That is what the noble Lord would like to do; he would like to ensure that we do not ease up on the political signal while strengthening the practicalities. It is interesting that the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, acknowledges that it is in fact the code that would be used to do the strengthening, not the embargo.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Deputy Leader, House of Lords

My Lords, I understand from the figures that the United States' military-use exports to China over the past two or three years were larger than those from all member states of European Union. Will Her Majesty's Government take up with the United States the desirability of tightening its 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 question of what is and is not exported has to be examined in very great detail. I have a list here of stranded individual export licences from this country in the past year. There are 40 items on the military list and 136 other items, as well as four other non-specified items. The question is, what is being exported, not the number of exports or the volume or value. It is what it is.

That is the great strength of the European code, because the code ensures that all countries in the European Union bound by it must look at whether the export would be likely to run the clear risk of being used for external aggression, internal repression or, of course, fuelling regional conflict. Those are the three great tests. I look at those licences, not to go to that part of the world but to other parts, and I know how rigorously that code is observed.