U.S. and European Union Arms Sales Since the 1989 Embargoes

T-NSIAD-98-171: Published: Apr 28, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 28, 1998.

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Benjamin F. Nelson
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the status of the arms embargoes imposed on China by the European Union (EU) and the United States following the 1989 massacre of demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, focusing on the: (1) terms of the EU embargoes; (2) extent of EU and U.S. sales of military items to China since 1989; and (3) potential role that such items could play in addressing China's defense needs.

GAO noted that: (1) the EU embargo consists of a 1989 political declaration that EU members will embargo the trade in arms with China; (2) each EU member may interpret and implement the embargo's scope for itself; (3) GAO found no instances of EU members entering into new agreements to sell China lethal military items after 1989, although some delivered lethal and nonlethal military items to China during the 1990s--apparently in connection with pre-embargo agreements--and have more recently agreed to deliver additional nonlethal military items; (4) according to experts, the embargo is not legally binding and any EU member could legally resume arms sales to China if it were willing to bear the political consequences of doing so; (5) GAO noted that at least two EU members are presently reconsidering whether the EU embargo should be continued; (6) in contrast to the EU embargo, the U.S. embargo is enacted in U.S. law and bars the sale to China of all military items--lethal and nonlethal--on the U.S. Munitions List; (7) the President may waive this ban if he believes that doing so is in the national interest; (8) since 1989, the President has issued waivers to: (a) allow the delivery to China of military items valued at $36.3 million to close out the U.S. government's pre-1989 defense agreements with China; and (b) license commercial military exports valued at over $312 million--primarily commercial satellite and encryption items; (9) the rather small amount of EU and U.S. sales of military items to China since 1989 could help address some aspects of China's defense needs; (10) however, their importance to China's modernization goal may be relatively limited because Russia and the Middle East have provided almost 90 percent of China's imported military items during this period; (11) according to experts with whom GAO spoke, China must overcome obstacles posed by its military's command and control, training, and maintenance processes before it can fully exploit such items; (12) recent U.S. executive branch actions suggest that its view of China's human rights record--the basis for the embargo in the first place--may be changing; and (13) in light of the possible weakening of support for continuing the embargo by some European governments, the question facing the U.S. government appears to be how the United States should respond if the EU embargo were to erode significantly in the near future.

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