Int'l Herald Tribune

The EU's foolish idea of selling arms to China

EU would lift the ban

Thursday, July 15, 2004

By Reginald Dale

Washington -- A new strategic confrontation between Europe and the United States is threatening to inflict further serious damage on trans-Atlantic relations. This time it is European unilateral action that risks precipitating a crisis.

The immediate dispute is over a French-German proposal, fiercely opposed by Washington, to lift the European Union ban on arms sales to China imposed after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. But the broader and equally controversial background to the Franco-German initiative is the EU's drive to forge a strategic relationship with China, independently from Europe's links to the United States.

This effort, several years in the making, has been warmly, if conditionally, welcomed in Beijing. It reflects the desires of both France and China to create a multipolar world, in which the United States would be no more than one of several global power centers. The EU, however, risks overestimating its potential influence with Beijing and paying too high a price for a pact with China.

Despite their constant pleas to the Bush administration for closer trans-Atlantic consultation on global issues, the Europeans have failed to consult Washington on the arms ban or on their wider aims in China. U.S. officials say that Beijing is taking advantage of trans-Atlantic divisions over Iraq and the war on terrorism to drive a strategic wedge between Europe and the United States, and fear that the Europeans will fall for the Chinese ploy.

The possible lifting of the arms ban in the coming months, which China has demanded as a key condition for closer relations with Europe, is causing particular alarm in Washington. For now, the administration does not want a big public fight. But Secretary of State Colin Powell is using every opportunity to press the issue with European governments, and President George W. Bush raised objections at the U.S.-EU summit meeting in Ireland in June.

Washington rightly argues that lifting the embargo would send the wrong political signal by endorsing Beijing's unsatisfactory human rights record, on which it has recently been backsliding. And while EU arms exporters might still not win major contracts, they could certainly provide advanced technology that would substantially increase China's firepower - much of which is aimed at Taiwan and intended to deter the United States from intervening in any conflict over the island.

Washington is understandably horrified at the thought of its forces coming under fire, or even the threat of fire, from weapons that North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies had helped to produce. New European technology transfers would also heighten the risk of arms proliferation and threaten an uncontrolled free-for-all in which Russia abandoned current restraints on its arms sales to Beijing and U.S. defense industries demanded their share of the action.

European officials claim that other EU voluntary safeguards would still restrain European sales. That is wishful thinking intended to salve the consciences of EU governments. The Europeans see China as an integral part of their strategy to achieve greater worldwide clout for the enlarged 25-nation EU.

All is not yet lost. A decision to lift the embargo requires unanimity, and Britain - the most important voice besides France and Germany - says it has not yet made up its mind. The European Parliament has expressed strong opposition. Japan and Australia are equally concerned.

The overall aims of European policy ought not to clash with those of the United States. It is in the interests of both Europeans and Americans to integrate China peacefully into the world's economic, political and security architecture.

But the Atlantic alliance will once again be severely strained if an out-of-its-depth Europe kowtows to China's demands to win favor in Beijing. Legislation is already making its way through the U.S. Congress restricting transfers of U.S. military technology to European countries selling arms to China and banning Pentagon purchases from European companies that do so.

It would help prevent Beijing from splitting the two sides of the Atlantic - and gaining a major victory for its shabby human rights policies - if EU leaders started practicing what they have so often preached over the past year. They should refrain from dangerous unilateral initiatives and conduct serious consultations on a joint strategic approach to China with the United States.

Reginald Dale is editor of the policy quarterly European Affairs and a media fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.