The EU and the US
26 February 2005
But why the heck is the European Union planning to sell more arms to China?
IF ANYONE still doubted that hypocrisy, or at least inconsistency, is endemic in international relations, this week surely proved the point. As George Bush toured Europe emphasising, in speech after speech, that the central principle of his foreign policy is the effort to spread liberty and democracy, Europeans queued up to mutter about how many American allies are unfree and undemocratic, and how contradictory it is to use guns and tanks as prime tools in that cause. Far better, they said, to be a "moral power" like the European Union, spreading freedom through softer and subtler means of influence and engagement means like, as Mr Bush heard to his horror, lifting the EU's embargo on arms sales to China, in return for precisely nothing from that communist regime on human rights, or democracy, or on its sabre rattling over Taiwan. Oh, except more trade, including more arms sales.
So stark is the disagreement over the arms embargo, and so keen have European politicians been to emphasise that they plan to go ahead and lift it regardless of what the Americans say, that it is something of a surprise that Mr Bush's visit this week proceeded so smoothly. That it did is largely because the tour was beautifully choreographed, with everyone who mattered given time to say something, but not so much that they could become annoying, especially about the arms embargo, which was kept firmly off the official agenda. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, the final handshake on Mr Bush's tour, was always going to pose more awkward problems of choreography, which may this time have made Mr Bush even keener to look friendly with Europe's proper democracies.
The visit was also smooth, though, because Mr Bush, at this point in his second term, is keen to reach out and build support rather than undermine it, as he did so often in his first four years. "The mission defines the coalition", as he and his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, have said so often, and at this point America's more diffuse, less warlike mission makes the EU useful rather than a nuisance. So much so that this week Mr Bush became in effect the first American president ever publicly to take the EU seriously as a set of institutions, rather than just an idea.
The EU, however, has not done quite so well at establishing its own claim to seriousness. On Ukraine, for sure, its firm support for democratic procedures and implicit offer of eventual membership played an important part in December's "orange revolution" there, and impressed the White House. But in the past few weeks, its effort to achieve unity on foreign policy has sounded more like cacophony than harmony. Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, shocked even his closest European ally, France, when to a Munich defence conference he declared that NATO was no longer the main forum for transatlantic discourse: the French may not disagree, but they hadn't been consulted. And on the subject of China and the arms embargo, the contradictions have been debilitating. While Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy co ordinator, has been trotting out the official line that lifting the embargo is purely "symbolic" and that no one actually plans to sell more arms, France's defence minister, Michele Alliot Marie, said brazenly that France certainly would sell more arms and that to do so would be a good thing, for it would slow down China's own development of military technology.
Probably, as in any group of 25 members, cacophony wil always be a feature of European affairs. But a vital objective fog the EU must be to keep the cacophony confined to less impor tant issues, and to achieve some sort of harmony on bigger matters. In a way, on the Chinese embargo, the EU has achieved the miracle of both: it has been cacophonous about the justification and the likely consequences, but so far har monious about the actual plan to remove the embargo. What it has failed to do is to convince its allies that it has thought seriously about the issue of security in East Asia.
Old China, New China
Achieving a consistent foreign policy towards China is famously difficult. This week, America was simultaneously grateful for Chinese help in persuading North Korea to return (well, perhaps return) to six party talks about its nuclear programme, and angry (especially in Congress) at the Europeans for wanting to sell China more arms. Japan is angry too but simultaneously glad that China is now its biggest trading partner and quiet about the question of human rights. China too is inconsistent: it purports to be hugely insulted by the arms embargo, yet also considers its relationship with America to be passing through one of its better phases.
What, then, can you do about this undemocratic giant, whose economic weight in the world is rising fast but which continues to make periodic military threats towards its "renegade province" of Taiwan, a country of 23m people that is independent de facto but not de jure? After the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the EU, along with Australia and the United States, imposed as one of its sanctions an embargo on arms sales. Australia lifted its ban in 1992. Neither the American nor the European embargoes mean that no arms are sold to China at all: both regions' defence industries do sell some fairly lowtech arms to China. As the Europeans say, the embargo places a rising superpower in peculiar company: the only other two countries subject to the same controls are Myanmar and Zimbabwe.
Those are the arguments for dispensing with the embargo. Doing so will no doubt bring EU members commercial benefits: some big contracts, perhaps, and probably an increased flow of Chinese tourists. Whether it brings an increase in arms sales will depend on how watertight is the code of conduct the EU promises to draw up to guide its national governments, and whether those governments all enforce it. Despite the French defence minister's comments, no one can be sure what will be sold in future. The fear, though, is that China will in time be able to buy high tech, often dual use, equipment now barred to it, as well as gaining more leverage in negotiating with other suppliers notably Russia as a result of having better access to European ones.
Such opportunities will not transform the strategic situation in East Asia overnight. Nor will they put Taiwan under imminent threat. But they do risk achieving both of those things during the next decade, a period during which the political direction of China is necessarily unknown. It is true that the China of 2005 is different in many ways from the China of 1989: there is more freedom, and the economy is a lot bigger. But human rights have not greatly improved, and China has been building up its military strength, notably along the Taiwan Strait. The China of 2010 or 2015 may prove to be a freer and more democratic place. or it may prove a more belligerent one, armed with more sophisticated weaponry. We know what Old China was like; not even the European know what New China will be like.
Such a risk is being taken in a way even the most junior Chinese diplomat must think bizarre: the European are making a political concession, but demanding nothing equivalent in return. What they are achieving, seemingly deliberately, is considerable annoyance among their allies. It is as if the Europeans have chosen to copy Mr. Bush, rather than convert him.