Sanctions have been one of the EU’s primary foreign policy tools in dealing with countries like Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar. However, the practice of sanctions clashes with China’s position of non-intervention. Equally, the EU’s ongoing weapons embargo on China is a point of contention between China and the EU.

Carnegie’s Shi Zhiqin moderated a roundtable discussion at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy that featured Clara Portela, an assistant professor at Singapore Management University, to explore the strategic interactions between China and the EU.

Purpose and Use of Sanctions

  • Purpose of Sanctions: Portela explained that sanctions were designed to be coercive and instigate a number of different outcomes including regime change, preventing flow of arms, undermining certain economic or military capabilities, and supporting democratic opposition groups. More recently, she added, the European Union and the UN have moved away from comprehensive sanctions, a trend that was common throughout the 1990s.
  • Comprehensive Versus Targeted: Portela explained that comprehensive sanctions targeted the economy of a country, frequently affecting the poorest sections of society while leaving the elite mostly unaffected. Targeted sanctions, she continued, were relatively free of humanitarian infractions and focused on measures like travel bans, commodity embargos, freezing assets, and prohibition of arms sales. A significant problem, Portela added, was finding enough evidence to prove that sanctions are effective in forcing policy changes.
  • Effectiveness: Research has demonstrated that sanctions work more effectively against democratic states that are not involved in active conflicts, Portela said. She added that keeping the aims of the sanctions modest increased the likelihood of successful sanctions.

Dispute Over the Use of Sanctions

  • Lack of Credibility: Portela stated that the EU’s arms embargo against China was not meant to be stringently implemented, as it is not legally binding. The restrictions are rather loosely followed by several EU countries. Portela explained that the divided stance of EU countries in applying the embargo demonstrated that the EU lacked a unified “voice,” adding that U.S. pressure was the main reason the embargo remained in place at all.
  • China’s Sanctions: Another scholar asked whether China should develop its own sanctions policies despite its nonintervention policy. A diplomat from the EU delegation pointed out that China has resorted to sanctions before. It used sanctions against Norway, following the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize incident, and Beijing called for a cessation of rare earth exports to Japan after the start of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. In response, one participant highlighted China’s agreement to UN sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
  • Impact of Sanctions on China’s Image: Though the arms embargo does not financially hurt China, Portela explained, it politically damages China’s prestige. Any embargos against China, especially in response to its human rights record, damage its global image. Several Chinese scholars responded that sanctions were thus detrimental to international relations.