The US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has approved a measure calling on US President George W. Bush’s administration to take strong actions, including sanctions on European firms if needed, to try to prevent the EU from lifting its embargo on the sale of arms to China.
There is growing concern in Washington that the EU might make another attempt to lift the embargo this year.
The measure is part of a broader bill the committee sent to the full House on Wednesday that would tighten up on controls on the licensing of arms exports, and deal with a range of other international proliferation matters such as North Korea’s provision of nuclear material to Syria.
The bill, which notes the danger that arms sold to China could be used against Taiwan, was introduced on Tuesday by the chairman of the committee, Representative Howard Berman.
It was quickly cosponsored by the ranking Republican, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and two other members.
The action comes two months before French President Nicholas Sarkozy assumes the six-month presidency of the EU in July.
France has long rallied for the US to abandon its arms embargo, which was imposed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, and Sarkozy renewed that call last November during a visit to Beijing in which he signed US$30 billion worth of commercial contracts, mainly for the Chinese purchase of Airbus aircraft.
The bill declares that it is the policy of the US government “to oppose any diminution or termination of the arms embargo ... and take whatever diplomatic and other measures that are appropriate to convince the member states of the European Union, individually and collectively, to continue to observe this embargo in principle and in practice.”
“Appropriate measures should include the prohibitions on entering into defense procurement contracts or defense-related research and development arrangements with European Union member states that do not observe such an embargo in practice,” it says.
Whether the arms embargo section of the bill will survive a full House vote is unclear.
In July 2005, when there was a concerted movement in the EU to lift the embargo, spearheaded by Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and then German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a similar bill, including such sanctions on EU firms, failed in the House.
However, that bill contained a tough detailed list of sanctions against European countries and firms, unlike the more general current bill, and was voted on at a time when the Republicans controlled Congress, unlike today’s Democratic control.
The 2005 bill, which appeared ready to be adopted, was torpedoed when lobbyists from US defense and aerospace firms, including Boeing, besieged representatives on the floor just before the vote, convincing some 100 of them, according to one count at the time, to switch their votes to “nay.”
The US firms were concerned that if the bill passed, their own business in Europe would be hurt by a backlash by the EU governments.
Earlier in 2005, the House and Senate did pass milder measures expressing “strong concerns” over the possible lifting of the embargo, and strong opposition by the Bush administration to wider arms sales to China — including exhortations by Bush during a visit to Europe that year — convinced the EU to continue the embargo.