America's Role in Asia and the EU Arms Embargo
Ellen Bork
Der Tagesspiegel

November 23, 2004

To an American observer, the Bundestag's motion against lifting the EU arms embargo last week was reminiscent of interventions the U.S. Congress has made in America's China policy. After President Jimmy Carter broke relations with Taiwan in 1978, the Congress passed legislation establishing unofficial ties and authorizing defensive weapons sales. Congressional pressure forced the first President Bush to take a tougher line than he was inclined to after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Neither the U.S. Congress nor the Bundestag has the last word on their countries' China policies. But the motion was significant, nevertheless, especially in demonstrating that there is ample basis for German and American cooperation on China.

Lately, such cooperation has seemed elusive. American efforts to share information on China's military build up and the precarious situation of Taiwan have not been well received. Washington's briefings have probably included data on China's military spending, including on weapons acquisition, which according to Evan Medeiros increased 1000 percent between 1990 and 2002, while the percentage of the budget devoted to arms procurement doubled. However, even these alarming figures may not represent the situation accurately; China's defense budget is estimated to increase at a rate two or three times higher than the official statistic of 13% per year.

What is the effect of Beijing's build up? And, what difference would European arms sales make? According to a senior Pentagon official, Richard Lawless, "China's ability to acquire, integrate and thereby multiply its force posture has really increased dramatically. …. [W]hat the EU does or doesn't do with its arms embargo or limitation vis-a-vis China is much more important today than, say, it was even four or five years ago." The Pentagon has estimated that the balance of forces will tilt in Beijing's favor as soon as next year.

Resistant to briefings, and not directly affected by a military conflict, European leaders might well dismiss U.S. fears. Some imagine that Beijing would not act against Taiwan before hosting the Olympics in 2008. Last year, however, a People's Liberation Army general insisted China would not be deterred by casualties or international sanctions -- including a boycott of the Olympics. The general's remark should be considered in the context of distinctive Chinese military attitudes and strategy. A study by the RAND Corporation concluded that even its "relative weakness cannot necessarily be relied upon to deter China from using force."

Another obstacle to transatlantic cooperation is historical. Since World War II, the U.S. has maintained troops and alliances in Asia. As a result, America has played the leading role in safeguarding regional security. Without similar experience, some Europeans may mistake American objections to lifting the embargo for trade or other ambitions. To be sure, the U.S. has domestic pressures to trade with China just as Europe does. Unlike Europe, however, America's trade is balanced by its security obligations. At crucial moments, the U.S. has also helped bring about transitions to democracy in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. In light of this role, Americans find it disturbing to hear some European leaders link their ambitions toward China to constraining America.

Some Europeans consider America's emphasis on human rights "moralizing." What then would they make of the pleas of Chinese dissidents? Bao Tong, the highest ranking party member to be imprisoned for opposing the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, argues from house arrest that "without international pressure, China's human-rights situation simply will not improve." Liu Junning, an intellectual, says that pressure from the U.S. is important not least so that those struggling for democracy know that they are not alone. Recently, Wang Dan a student leader at Tiananmen Square, now living in the U.S., asked the EU to maintain the embargo. He expressed particular disillusionment with President Chirac, recalling that democracy protesters in 1989 drew inspiration from the French Revolution.

Mr. Schroeder has vowed to continue efforts to lift the embargo. Nevertheless, from now on he will have to deal with an active role on China from members of his own coalition. Sooner or later he will learn from them that Germany and America have much more in common with each other than either does with the communist party dictatorship in Beijing.