Keep a Common Front on Arms Sales to China
Ellen Bork
Financial Times
May 21, 2004

For years east Asia has hovered on the fringes of the transatlantic alliance as a potential source of tension. Europe is trying to raise its profile in the region and China has emerged as a partner for Europeans who see Beijing as an essential counterweight to US dominance in world affairs.

Yet even those most sensitive to the gap between Europe and the US on strategic matters have assumed it cannot pose a serious problem within the alliance. For reasons of distance and history, Robert Kagan wrote in his book Of Paradise and Power, Europe is “even less relevant” in east Asia than it is in the Middle East.

Now, however, an issue that combines Europe’s ambition and sense of impotence with the dangers of a changing strategic environment has emerged to challenge these assumptions. On his recent swing through Europe Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, stepped up lobbying of European Union members to lift the arms embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. By lifting the arms ban, Mr Wen said, the EU could have a “win-win situation” and the benefits would be “self-evident”. A few days later Tony Blair, the British prime minister, announced that more than Dollars 1bn worth of contracts for UK companies had been agreed during Mr Wen’s visit.

Trade - the urge to get it and the fear of losing it - is a major factor in EU thinking about China. The EU expects to surpass the US and Japan as China’s top trading partner in 2005. Defence companies would like to use Beijing’s money to revive their industries and update their technology.

The incentives are all positive, but China is also capable of inflicting pain. “If we were the only country to refuse lifting this embargo, it would not be good for economic relations with China,” Jan Balkenende, Dutch prime minister, said last December, perhaps recalling Beijing’s anger after the Netherlands supported a human rights resolution on China in 1997 that most other European countries did not back.

Europe’s desire for more trade with China hardly distinguishes it from the US, which surrendered important leverage in 2000 by permanently normalising China’s trade status. The potential for serious disagreement among the allies over China arises instead from Europe’s regional ambitions and, more importantly, from the temptation to align itself with China and against the US.

Chris Patten, the EU’s external affairs commissioner, says China has a “multipolar view of the world into which Europe fits rather well”. Jacques Chirac, the French president, has a more straightforward formulation. He has formally agreed with China to “foster the march towards multipolarity” in order to “oppose any attempt at domination in international affairs” - a reference to the global role of the US.

Despite Mr Wen’s inducements, the transatlantic rift over the EU’s China arms embargo seems to have been deferred. After Brussels initiated a formal review of the embargo last December the Bush administration sent intelligence officials to brief EU governments. Washington told its allies that contrary to Mr Chirac’s claim that arming Beijing would not change the strategic balance of power, EU arms sales could indeed enhance China’s ability to threaten Taiwan and potentially destabilise the region.

Richard Lawless, a deputy assistant secretary of defence, told a US commission on China in February that what the EU decided on its arms embargo was “much more important today than, say, it was even four or five years ago”. Current and incoming members of the EU have been unable to reach consensus, however, and action has been deferred at least until after the Irish presidency ends next month.

Intelligence-sharing could provide a sound foundation for future transatlantic co-operation on China. Strategic concerns have been added to human rights as a consideration in lifting the embargo. Europe’s capitals now have a better understanding of China’s military modernisation efforts and the strategic situation in the Taiwan strait, which the Pentagon estimates will soon tilt in Beijing’s favour. Washington and Europe could also productively discuss other issues such as China’s role in Burma, where the EU has a record of opposition to the military regime, or the idea of a security alliance of Asian democracies where Europe’s Nato experience could be helpful.

It is difficult to believe the US’s European allies would consciously endanger Taiwan, its US protector and, possibly, regional stability. Nevertheless, as Mr Wen’s recent visit to Europe showed, China will not be satisfied until the embargo has been lifted. Without better understanding between Washington and Europe over Asian security, disagreements such as the one over the arms embargo will recur, with potentially dangerous consequences.