Setting limits on weapons for China
| Editorial International Herald Tribune
Saturday, February 26, 2005
Of all the things the Europeans said to President George W. Bush about lifting their arms embargo on China, only one really mattered: They're going to do it whether he likes it or not. Bush's response was equally clear: If you do, you'll be provoking me and the Congress at your peril.
All this was couched in diplomatic niceties, befitting the theme of reconciliation assigned to Bush's European trip. But there was no mistaking the very real divide. The president has needlessly antagonized the Europeans, especially over Iraq, but in this case, he's right: Lifting the arms embargo is a bad idea.
To the Europeans, China merely represents an alluring trade bonanza. For the United States - as well as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan - it remains a potential military threat. Selling China weapons that might be used to shoot down United States aircraft assigned to defend Taiwan seems a terrible idea.
China also remains a serious human rights offender, which was the original motivation for the embargo, imposed over the killings in Tiananmen Square.
But it seems unlikely that Bush can stop the Europeans from lifting the ban, so the United States needs to demand that the European Union impose strict and enforceable restrictions on the sale of state-of-the-art military technologies, including those suitable for either civilian or military use.
Those Europeans most interested in lifting the embargo - France, Germany, Italy and Britain - argue that China's human rights record has improved, that many regimes get away with far worse behavior, and that the Chinese military will make the arms anyway, so selling them gives the West some useful control.
But the fact remains that the embargo was initially ordered to demonstrate that what happened in Tiananmen was totally unacceptable. To this day, China has not shown the slightest regret for those bloody events, nor has it given any guarantees that they will not happen again.
On the contrary, Beijing's deliberate downplaying of the death last month of Zhao Ziyang, the deposed party chief who opposed the 1989 crackdown, demonstrated that little has changed. Indeed, one reason Beijing is so anxious for the embargo to end is to forget the reason for it.
The Chinese Army is developing weapons at a breakneck pace, or buying them in Russia, Israel, Australia - and illegally Europe, for that matter. But China does not yet have access to the latest technology, and is years from developing it.
The reasonable American fear is that if China gains access to state-of-the-art technology, the balance of power with Taiwan, and more broadly across Asia, would be dangerously altered. Beijing continues to look on Taiwan solely as a wayward province to be taken back as soon as it is possible to do so.
The dispute over the embargo has the potential for creating a new trans-Atlantic rift, as serious as the one created by the invasion of Iraq. Both Republican and Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill have expressed strong objections to lifting the embargo, and some have threatened to limit sales of advanced technology to Europe unless Europe provided guarantees that it won't be shared with China.
Though the Europeans have repeatedly promised a tough code of conduct on arms sales, they have not produced one. They need to do that, promptly, and it must be clear and binding. It's the least they can do.