Don't Lift the EU Arms Embargo on China
NRC Handelsblad
Ellen Bork and Jeff Bergner

September 1, 2004

Whether the matter is formally on the agenda or not, European Union foreign ministers meeting September 3 and 4 in Maastricht will confront an unresolved issue with the potential to renew tensions in the transatlantic alliance. Since late last year, there has been a concerted drive within the EU to lift the embargo imposed on arms sales to China in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although action on the matter was put off during the Irish presidency, there is speculation that a decision to lift the embargo may be made in time for the Europe-China meeting at the Hague on December 8.

The United States has made keeping the embargo a top priority with its European allies, arguing that China's human rights performance, which has deteriorated over the past few years, and China's military modernization and threat to Taiwan argue against it. For their part European proponents of lifting the embargo argue that Chinese no longer suffer from catastrophic human rights abuses of the Mao era and that Europe's code of conduct would be an effective bulwark against ill-advised sales. However the embargo issue is resolved, it illustrates a larger problem that is bound to recur with potentially serious consequences, both for the alliance and for the strategic environment in Asia.

To put it simply, European and American approaches to China are different. It is not hard to see why. After World War II, America became the dominant power and guarantor of security in Asia. Even after the reductions announced by President Bush, America will have tens of thousands of troops in the region, continue its alliance relationships with South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, and maintain its commitment to Taiwan's defense.

Europe's role in Asia today is based on something else entirely. EU policies are "guided primarily or even exclusively by its trade and economic interest," writes Frank Umbach of the German Council on Foreign Relations, "thus neglecting and overlooking many strategic security challenges."

Without a security role and defense commitments, European capitals also lack the intelligence and threat assessments that go along with them. The U.S. has sent teams to brief European allies on China's military modernization to address this information gap. Among the information that Washington is undoubtedly sharing are the findings of recent studies like the Pentagon's annual report on China's military for 2004, which warned that as a result of "Beijing's diplomatic successes and steady improvement in the PLA's military capabilities, the cross-Strait balance of power is steadily shifting in China's favor."

Beijing's growing advantage comes from a variety of factors, including improvements and acquisitions that will increase weapons mobility, firepower and precision. Meanwhile, another report released in June by the bi-partisan U.S.-China Security and Economic Review Commission concluded that sales of EU weaponry would "dramatically enhance" China's capabilities and could also break down political barriers to sales of more sophisticated armaments from sources like Russia.

Of course, America's policy toward China is not simply based on military concerns. Nor is it the exclusive province of the official experts. America's China policy is part of our political discourse, a matter of debate among presidential candidates and the subject of considerable congressional concern. Elected representatives in the US Congress can and do play a decisive role in China policy when it forced a stronger U.S. response to the Tiananmen Square massacre than the Bush administration was inclined to mount, and in 1979 when Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to mitigate the effects of Jimmy Carter's decision to break diplomatic relations and defense cooperation with Taipei.

Indeed, the American public is engaged to a degree rued by some of our officials and Sinologists who would prefer the latitude of public disinterest within which to craft China policies. Some even look to Europe to counteract American policy. Professor David Shambaugh has praised Europe's tendency not to view China "in a strategic sense," because it enables Europe to "tap the China market" while avoiding being "proscribed by political or strategic considerations" fed by the "ideological zeal and 'missionary impulse'" he ascribes to the United States.

Such distorted characterizations might give European leaders the wrong idea. It is important that Europe's leaders and its citizens understand the basis for America's concerns about lifting the arms embargo. U.S. policy in the region aims to achieve more than market access. The U.S. has a leading role in guaranteeing the security of Asia's democracies, Taiwan included. American policies are shaped by their impact on the full range of strategic, political, humanitarian and economic concerns.

Despite suspicions to the contrary, the U.S. -- long a supporter of a strong and united Europe -- welcomes a larger European role in world affairs, including in areas beyond Europe itself. Neither Asia nor any other region is a preserve of American policy.

There is perhaps no more significant question in the coming decades than how to deal with the rising economic and military power of China. It is important that the world's leading democracies respond effectively and not at cross purposes. We are persuaded that if European leaders study the strategic consequences of lifting the arms embargo, they will find reason to forge a common transatlantic policy on arms sales to Beijing.

More broadly, as Europe seeks to play a larger role in Asia and elsewhere, it is vital that it do so with a thorough assessment of the strategic implications of its actions. That is an essential precondition for a cooperative transatlantic policy in an increasingly challenging part of the world.

Ellen Bork is deputy director of the Project for the New American Century, and former senior staff member for East Asia and the Pacific on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Jeff Bergner is senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.