Listen to the Czechs
Ellen Bork
New York Sun

December 13, 2004

The long-running campaign by China and its European allies to lift the European Union's arms embargo was stymied earlier this month at The Hague. At a summit meeting between the European Union and China on Wednesday, the E.U. announced that it would not, for now, lift the ban on arms sales to Beijing imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Nevertheless, Washington, which has worked hard to persuade the E.U. to maintain the embargo, cannot afford to relax. In a joint communique from The Hague, the E.U. "confirmed its political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo." It may be just a matter of time, perhaps months. E.U. foreign affairs chief Javier Solana said the action might be taken in the first half of next year. While Beijing and its European friends insist that lifting the embargo is a political matter, unrelated to actual sales of arms, EADS, the largest European defense and aerospace firm, told the International Herald Tribune this week that it would likely begin negotiating sales as soon as the embargo ended.

China certainly will not give up until its long march ends in victory. Despite Wednesday's setback, Beijing can be pleased. Signs of progress began to appear a year ago, when E.U. sources began speaking of a "shift in mood" among members regarding the embargo. There was talk of how much China had changed since 1989 and how unfair it was to put China in the same category as Burma, and Zimbabwe, which are also subject to arms embargoes. (That's questionable. For starters, a Chinese official recently put the number of executions there at more than 10,000 people a year.)

At the same time, however, the E.U.'s enlargement last May introduced into the union countries that are less than starry-eyed about the Communist Party dictatorship in Beijing. Last week, one of them, the Czech Republic, lent its Senate building to a symposium on China sponsored by a bipartisan American commission and a Prague think tank. Many of the views expressed there have become nearly extinct in American discourse about China. "The PRC shouldn't have access to Western technology until human rights are respected and democracy" has been achieved, said a Czech senator, Jan Ruml. Mr. Ruml sees the Chinese Communist Party's crisis of ideological legitimacy as a destabilizing factor and Beijing's friendships with Rangoon and Pyongyang as cause for concern.

It's not that Mr. Ruml and others haven't been exposed to opposing opinions from America. The chairman of the Czech Senate's Committee on International Affairs, Defense and Security, Josef Jarab, says dismissively, "I've read Fareed Zakaria. He says 'you can't really introduce democracy before you have some level of economic prosperity.' "But, says Jarab, "they go hand in hand." Mr. Jarab also professes himself "a little disappointed" by the free world's embrace of China. The West "believes in realpolitik more than they should," he says.

The lure of the China market turns heads in Prague, too. Oldrich Schwarz, a Czech businessmen at the symposium who said he takes his advice from Morgan Stanley and quotes Deng Xiaoping a lot, praised China's village "elections" and faulted those who fail to understand that business in China is simply done differently than in the West. "I don't know why a country [the U.S.] with such a high standard of marketing doesn't understand that these questions have to be done on a business level." He also compared China's treatment of trade unions to Wal-Mart's.

It's quite natural for Czech companies to look for markets abroad. And while expectations for the China consumer market have yet to be fulfilled, the same cannot be said of the military market. One Czech defense company had hoped to sell China a radar system, but abandoned the sale at the request of America.

Tensions between trade and security and principle will continue. But an end to the E.U. embargo would remove a crucial element of restraint. Now, governments are able to resist domestic pressures to sell by citing the common policy. The absence of a ban would leave decisions to individual states. Beyond the E.U., Russia, which has felt political pressure not to sell the most sensitive weaponry, will no longer resist. And inevitably, pressure would build from American manufacturers that they, too, be allowed to enter the Chinese market.

The requirement of consensus in decision-making should make the sentiments of the Czech Republic, other new members, and Denmark, which also favors maintaining the embargo, decisive. But it's hard to hold out against the diplomatic pressure from E.U. heavyweights Paris and Berlin.

The Europeans who are sympathetic to America on this issue could use some help. A senior Czech Foreign Ministry official speaking at the symposium, Jiri Schneider, worried that Washington's efforts have been confined to diplomatic channels. Washington, he said, "is making a mistake" by not explaining the strategic threat from China to the European public.

In short, America needs to do more. Confusion about America's China policy extends even to relatively well-informed policy-makers who find Washington's position on dual-use exports confusing. If America has to re-examine its own record as part of helping our friends in Europe maintain the E.U. arms embargo of China, that is not too much to ask.

Washington should ignore predictions that this spring will see the lifting of the embargo. Inevitability has played too large a role in dealing with China over the past several years. And if American policy-makers need a little encouragement in this regard, they have only to confer with our friends the Czechs, who know a little something about dealing with a supposed inevitability of dictatorship.