Int'l Herald Tribune

EU vs. U.S. vs. China: Partnership paradoxes

Richard Bernstein International Herald Tribune
Friday, January 21, 2005

BERLIN Probably the next big strategic difference between Europe and the United States won't be about Iran or the Middle East or even on the broader question of unilateralism versus multilateralism. It's going to be about China, which, in the official European view is a "strategic partner," even as Chinese-American rivalry looms.

Two events in the past few days illustrate the European-American divide on this question.

First was the decision of China's government to make a nonevent of the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former party chief and prime minister, who fell out of favor in 1989 when he opposed the use of military force to quell the student-led democracy protests of that year, and remained under house arrest until his death this week.

And second was the decision by the United States to penalize eight Chinese companies, including some of the country's biggest military contractors, for supplying missile technology to Iran.

The relegation of Zhao to nonpersonhood shows that when it comes to sensitive issues of Communist Party prestige and authority, China, contrary to widespread belief in the West, is still very much a Communist dictatorship, a country whose leaders, as Orwell might have put it, sometimes require that the truth be made falsehood and falsehood made truth. And the leftover Orwellian nature of the Chinese government has tended to have more weight in U.S. policy making on China than it has in Europe.

The arms transfers to Iran, a more practical problem, illustrate the widening European-American divide on strategic thinking about China, with Europe less inclined to impose restraints on China than the United States. And, of course, this difference relates to the biggest area of trans-Atlantic disagreement, the emerging consensus in Europe that the arms embargo the European Union members have maintained against China since 1989 has become an anachronism, and that, probably before the end of this year, it is going to be lifted.

Indeed, who can entirely disagree with such a decision? It has been almost 16 years since Tiananmen. China's leadership today, may as in the Zhao case, still resemble the old gang that ordered the assault on the democracy protesters, but the assault's instigators, like Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, have passed from the political scene. China in general shows no signs of playing a rogue role in global affairs.

Moreover, European diplomats argue that any lifting of the arms embargo would not be followed by actual arms sales to China. The effect, they say, would be largely symbolic. The European Union, sensitive to American concerns, would strengthen what is called the Code of Conduct governing arms sales that would severely limit the kinds of military technologies that China could actually acquire.

"China and Israel are the two countries that have already agreed to participate in Galileo," Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. Galileo is the proposed EU rival to the American satellite navigation system, the Global Positioning System. "This does not match with an arms embargo," Gallach said. "There is a total incongruity, and the Chinese in particular are keen to remove this incongruity."

Could that lead to conflict with the United States, the country that would face China militarily if it ever came to war with Taiwan? "We look at the Chinese as a strategic partner," Gallach said. "Some Americans might have the temptation to look at China as a strategic competitor in the long term, so we have to start by analyzing the situation in a sober manner, and to try to work together with the Americans."

Many American experts on China, and some in the Bush Administration, think that the strengthened Code of Conduct would be a fine way of squaring this particular circle. And yet, from the American standpoint, there remains something unsettling about a "strategic partnership" between China and Europe.

David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University, writing in a recent issue of Current History, observes that China and the European Union constitute "an emerging axis in world affairs," one of whose common points is "a convergence of views about the United States, its foreign policy and its global behavior." In other words, China and the EU agree that the United States has to be constrained. Strategic partners indeed.

But there is a paradox here - perhaps difficult to believe in the wake of the Iraq war - but true nonetheless. It is that it is easier for countries and groups of countries that are not superpowers and have no global strategic interests to act without constraints than it is for the sole superpower.

To some extent, this has to do with the weight of a gesture, which is where China's instructions to its press to ignore Zhao's death comes into the picture. A superpower does not always get its way in the world, but its words and gestures and policies have consequences in a way that those of middle-size powers do not.

It's easier in this sense for Europe than the United States to relinquish its human rights rhetoric when it conflicts with other interests, such as economic advantage. That is why most European members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have voted against or abstained in the unsuccessful U.S. effort to have the Chinese record officially scrutinized there.

China can sell missile technology to Iran in part because it has no strategic interests in the Middle East - only the narrow national interest of ensuring oil supplies. And Europe can lift its arms embargo against China because the EU, however it might want to play a big role in a multipolar world, has no strategic interests in Asia - only the narrow interest of benefiting from the China trade.

So, for example, Europe has essentially eliminated Taiwan - a territory bigger than more than half of the EU member states - from its frame of reference. It won't be Europe's concern if a democratic Taiwan is forced, under Chinese diplomatic and military pressure, to give up its de facto independence.

There is also no sense of shared responsibility for the fate of a small island under pressure from a giant and ever more powerful neighbor. The Europeans know and can count on the fact that whatever the consequences of its decision on arms to China, the responsibility to deal with them will be America's alone.