At last: France is making a commitment to free trade. Unfortunately, it involves selling arms to China. President Chirac has ordered a review of the ban on arm sales to China imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. This would enable France to grab a share of the £2 billion-a-year market for military equipment in the world’s most populous country, and so take advantage of the fact that the United States intends to stick to the embargo. Following Chirac’s lead, Tony Blair has indicated that Britain, too, may lift the ban on arms sales.
This column does not usually call for trade boycotts, but when it comes to selling arms to China it is prepared to make an exception. The United States is right and France and Britain are wrong. This is not a case of selling the odd secondhand and — to us — obsolete tank to a democratic African republic hemmed in by malignant regimes. This is a case of sharing our military technology with an aggressive regional power which has made threatening noises towards one of its neighbours, Taiwan, and continues to oppress its own people by keeping surviving protesters from Tiananmen Square in jail.
There are very clear strategic reasons why we should not aid the growth in China’s military capacity. Equally, there is every reason why we should seek to promote trade with China in all other respects. It is bizarre that France may soon be sending missiles to Beijing, and yet still refuse to allow China’s farmers to compete on an equal basis with French farmers. The decision which faces an ambitious dictatorship, between economic expansion and military expansion, has been summed up as ‘guns versus butter’. By lifting the arms embargo yet dragging our heels over the liberalisation of agricultural trade, France would send a very powerful message to China: choose the guns. So much for France’s high-minded opposition to war in Iraq.