Int'l Herald Tribune

Courting China

Editorial, International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The sight of Western presidents and prime ministers taking turns to kowtow before China's leaders is perhaps the surest measure of the Chinese economic miracle. There's money to be made behind that Great Wall, and it's hard to begrudge President Jacques Chirac of France his very successful sales trip to China at the head of a small army of French businessmen last week. The word is that they got more than $4 billion in orders, including planes and trains.

It is troubling when someone who makes so big a deal of human rights elsewhere loses sight of the problem when business deals are at stake. But Chirac is hardly alone in wooing the Chinese - President George W. Bush, another fierce champion of freedom, threw quite a party for Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Washington last December, and Britain and Germany both do more business with China than France.

It's also true that China has made some strides on the human-rights front since the Tiananmen massacre 15 years ago. Then there's the argument, used by Washington when it moved toward détente with the Soviet Union, that forging economic and political ties does more to advance freedoms in the long run than wagging a public finger.

But Chirac went beyond what everybody else is doing when he urged an end to the embargo on arms sales imposed on China after Tiananmen. The embargo, said the French president, has "no justification and no result." No justification? Well, there's still the jailing of dissidents and journalists, or the suppression of the Falun Gong. As for results, it's sadly true that once a country breaks ranks with others that have imposed punitive sanctions, the embargo is, indeed, weakened. Fortunately, the European Union did not follow France's lead. EU foreign ministers decided last week that they need more time "to consider related trends." Nordic countries still demand concrete progress on human rights, while Britain and some Eastern European countries have apparently heeded Washington's insistence that the ban be maintained.

We believe the main reason the arms ban should not be lifted yet is that the Communist leaders in China have not made sufficient progress on human rights. Sure, there are many nasty regimes which are not prohibited from buying weapons. But once an embargo is in place as a result of an egregious violation of human rights, as Tiananmen was, lifting it implies that the perpetrators have eliminated the factors that led to the crime. That has not yet happened in the Chinese Communist party.

The second reason for not rushing to lift the embargo is to study the potential consequences. Does China seek only a political seal of approval, or does it really want to buy arms? Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would certainly want to know the answer before the embargo is lifted.

These are serious issues, requiring discussion and joint decisions by all the Western nations that imposed the embargo. France has been among the loudest of the Europeans in insisting that multilateral, peaceful pressure is the proper way for the West to influence the behavior of bad regimes. It is hypocritical to apply that only to poor regimes.