A trans-Atlantic storm over arms for China
| Hans Binnendijk International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Washington A silent crisis is building over European arms sales to China that needs attention during President George W. Bush's visit to Brussels this month, or it will overwhelm any positive impact the trip may have.
On Dec. 17, the European Union reaffirmed its political will to "continue to work" toward lifting the post-Tiananmen arms embargo on China and decide on the issue during the next six months. In response, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring that the lifting of the embargo would be inconsistent with trans-Atlantic defense cooperation and threatening unwelcome constraints on the defense relationship if the current course is not reconsidered.
France champions lifting the embargo for economic advantage and possibly in an effort to construct counterbalancing pressures on American power. Britain now supports the concept, perhaps to offset damage done to its European ties over Iraq. Germany seems prepared to go along because it believes the European arms sales code of conduct will be an adequate substitute. Many other EU countries are hesitant, but they lack the political will to confront EU leaders to block the embargo's repeal.
Europe is missing the depth of American concern. The United States does not see China as an enemy today; it recognizes that war with China would be disastrous for all. But Europe will remember the dynamics of August 1914, when an unforeseen event triggered commitments, mobilization and slaughter among nations who did not want war. Relations across the Taiwan Strait are not under American control, Chinese vehemence on Taiwan is unmistakable and Taiwanese democracy seeks independence. A similar dynamic could recur.
Given these dangers, opening the door to sales of military technology to China would be seen as a betrayal in Washington. NATO would be harmed. The danger of U.S. military technologies leaking to China through the EU could undermine defense cooperation projects worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. While EU leaders have given assurance that there is no plan to increase military sales to China, such sales doubled between 2002 and 2003. European Aeronautics Defense & Space, Europe's largest defense company, has already announced its intention to increase its marketing to China should the embargo be removed.
Lifting the embargo could have both security and political consequences. The security consequences would depend on the equipment sold. Major battle platforms like quiet submarines and advanced fighter aircraft would be destabilizing and might not be approved. But it would be so-called nonlethal transfers, like information technology adapted for military command and control, sensing and precision strike that would prove most dangerous. Those technologies transformed the U.S. military and could change China's calculus as to the effectiveness of a military option across the Taiwan Strait.
For China, the lifting of the embargo would be a seal of approval from Europe. It would tell the world that Europe is satisfied with China's human rights progress, and could give China greater leeway in its dealings with Taiwan. Neither is healthy for the Chinese people.
Europe should not lift the embargo. But if it must, it should first develop an acceptable formula together with the United States and Asian allies that reflects common interests. Bush's meetings in Brussels should establish such a process.
Such a formula might have several elements. First, effective European arms export control procedures must be adopted. The code of conduct offered by Europe is a nonbinding set of principles totally inadequate for the task. There must be clear trans- Atlantic agreement on forgoing sales that would be particularly harmful to security in the Asia-Pacific region. EU states, the United States and Japan could also agree to consult before approving any transfer of military technology to China.
Second, the symbolic impact of lifting the embargo must be circumscribed. China has sought better relations with Taiwan during the past month. It might well take additional steps, like releasing political prisoners, before Europe lifts the embargo. But these are either modest or temporary steps, while lifting the embargo as currently planned is permanent. Specific political conditions might be set for lifting the embargo. Or Europe might suspend the embargo one year at a time, re-evaluating China's progress each year. That would create useful incentives to guide Chinese behavior.
Third, there needs to be a trans-Atlantic agreement about how Europe would behave if the United States were forced into conflict with China. For example, China has invested heavily in Galileo, the European global navigation satellite system. China will use that capability to direct its future precision weapons. That capability should be denied to China in time of war with the United States or its Asian allies.
If Europe seeks its own solution based primarily on commercial considerations, the reaction from the United States will be dramatic. This can be avoided if Europe understands that this is a vital security issue for America and that it must settle the question in close consultations with Washington.
(Hans Binnendijk is director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University in Washington.)