Int'l Herald Tribune

Chirac in China: Behind a warm embrace, serious questions

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, International Herald Tribune
Thursday, October 14, 2004

Paris -- President Jacques Chirac's recent visit to China has been presented by the French government as a great success. Indeed an unprecedented number of contracts, amounting to more than $4 billion, were signed, and political relations look as spotless as a blue sky.

But Chirac's trip has also underscored three major paradoxes in the French-Chinese - and to some extent, in the European-Chinese - relationship.

The first is the contrast between the good state of the French-Chinese political relations and the disappointing level of economic and trade exchanges. Realizing lately that dynamic trade is based not only on large contracts actively sponsored or supported by the government, but also dependent on an aggressive network of small and middle-sized enterprises (SME), Chirac took two dozen SME executives along.

But it was the large contracts signed by major French industrial groups that dominated the visit. In any case, our SMEs' international timidity is more a French problem than a Chinese problem.

The second paradox is the absence of linkage between Chirac's willingness to lift the European Union's arms embargo on China and his stated concern about military tension in the Taiwan Strait. Since the missile crisis in the Strait in 1996, the EU has refrained from lifting the embargo not so much because of slow progress in China's human rights, but because of the Chinese army's increasing military pressure on Taiwan.

If the EU wants to develop a more coherent and active foreign and security policy, can it really adopt an ostrich policy toward the Taiwan Strait? That's what lifting the embargo would signal to Beijing, just when Chinese authorities refuse to resume talks with Taiwan in spite of the recent overtures by Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian.

A responsible EU should establish a direct link between putting an end to the arms embargo and China's readiness to initiate a constructive negotiation with Taiwan.

In the meantime, the EU should work with the United States to coordinate policies not only on arms sales, but also on the transfer of sensitive or dual technologies to China. EU and U.S. defense industries both compete and cooperate, and their interdependence requires such coordination rather than a unilateral EU decision opposed by the United States.

The third paradox is the contrast between the much-heralded importance of France's relationship with China and Beijing's international priorities. The Chinese authorities have developed a "seduction strategy" towards France and Europe to attract their investments and technology and to increase Beijing's room to maneuver vis-ā-vis the United States. At the same time, China's main international partner - and objective - is not the EU but the United States. In such circumstances, trying to play China off against the United States cannot serve the interests of France or the European Union.

But if France and the EU joined the United States in a joint China strategy on the issues on which they have a common view - and these issues are more numerous that we often think in France - we would increase our bargaining power on the Taiwan Strait and more efficiently contribute to the rule of law and an improvement in human rights in China.

Conversely, far from increasing its influence in China, France's crusade for multipolarity has become a divisive factor within the EU, between a majority of states that want to keep a close strategic relationship with the United States and a minority that would be ready to establish special partnerships with every power, be it democratic or not, in order to try to balance the influence of the United States.

The readiness of Chirac - as well Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany - to endorse Beijing's "one China, two systems" policy towards Taiwan also does not help, not only because it does not represent the official view of the EU but also because it stands no chance of being approved by the people of Taiwan.

Finally, the French government seems to have forgotten that we deal with a Chinese political regime whose life expectancy remains uncertain. China will find its own way towards more freedom and democracy. But we should not forget how we were all surprised by the abrupt collapse of another Communist regime, in the Soviet Union.