China apologists claim that the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports is sufficient to limit arms sales. But they conveniently ignore the fact that the Code of Conduct is voluntary and thus not enforceable. This is why the European Parliament voted across party and national lines last month against lifting the ban until the EU Code of Conduct is made binding.
Can anything pull the Atlantic alliance's policies on arms exports together? Trade with a country with China's human-rights record must not only make economic sense; it must also fit the wider aims of foreign policy. That means, above all, avoiding trade that makes it more difficult to pursue those aims.
Just as US presidents looked foolish when they bent their foreign policy to the dictates of American wheat farmers in the 1970s and 1980s, European governments that are prepared to mortgage Asian security to a restless China also command no respect. The lesson is clear: security interests must come before business interests.
So transatlantic coordination is needed to ensure that any trade of sophisticated arms and weapons-related technologies with China does nothing to enhance China's military power and that competition between Western producers of goods that may legitimately be sold to China does not damage Western political unity.
In the Cold War era, there was a mechanism for such trade. From 1949 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Consultative Group Coordinating Committee (COCOM) monitored and controlled the export of Western technology to the Soviet Union. It did so by a gentlemen's agreement and with reasonable success. COCOM provided an opportunity to settle squabbles and plug loopholes quietly. Something similar is urgently needed now.
Charles Tannock, a British Conservative European member of parliament, is vice-chairman of the European Parliament's Human Rights Committee. Copyright: Project Syndicate