Int'l Herald Tribune

For Beijing, a sobering message on embargo

'Anti-secession law had a strong impact' on European shift

By Joseph Kahn
International Herald Tribune
Thursday, March 24, 2005

BEIJING An apparent shift in European plans to lift an arms embargo on China has sent a sobering message to China's new leadership, underscoring the sensitivity of its Taiwan policy and the continued dominance of the United States, according to Chinese analysts.

American and European officials said this week that the European Union might delay its plan to lift the embargo until next year at the earliest, dealing a blow to one of China's foremost foreign policy goals. The embargo was imposed after China's crackdown on student-led protests in 1989.

European diplomats cited China's newly adopted anti-secession law and intense American opposition to easing restraints on weapons sales to explain the shift. The Chinese law adopted this month threatens military action if Taiwan pursues formal independence from the mainland.

Few in China have openly criticized passage of the anti-secession law, which Beijing leaders argue is needed to stop Taiwan's drift toward independence. But some foreign policy experts said the country was paying a high price for codifying its longstanding threat to use force into law.

"No question, the anti-secession law had a strong impact on European sentiment," said Song Xinning, a professor at People's University, who is one of China's most prominent experts on European policy.

"The Europeans have said all along that the embargo is a problem they would like to solve, and that it is just a question of timing," Song said. "Now, this has become a very bad time."

China's official position, repeated by a Foreign Ministry spokesman on Tuesday, is that the European arms embargo and the anti-secession law have no connection. China says it wants the embargo removed because it amounts to an anachronistic form of political discrimination. The anti-secession law, according to the official line, is aimed at maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait.

Privately, some Chinese analysts say they now believe that the law may have been mishandled by the leadership under Hu Jintao, the Communist Party chief, who has sought to strengthen his credentials by taking a tougher posture toward Taiwan.

It came as a discordant note at a time when relations with Taiwan were widely viewed as improving. Some Chinese moderates on the Taiwan question argued that the National People's Congress, the Communist Party-controlled legislature, might have simply discussed a new law rather than enacting one, which was done with little public debate.

"I think the leadership anticipated that they would get a strong reaction from the parties most directly concerned, like Taiwan and the United States," said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy expert in Beijing. "But I'm not so sure they anticipated second- and third-degree reactions, as from Europe. So I think to an extent this comes as a surprise."

Just a few weeks ago, Beijing seemed close to achieving its ambition of removing the embargo, which it views as inappropriate for a country of its rising stature.

After persistent Chinese diplomacy, France, Germany, Britain and other European countries all signaled their willingness to remove the embargo by this summer.

But sentiment shifted after President George W. Bush visited Europe in February, where he lobbied against lifting the embargo while also backing a highly restrictive code of conduct on arms sales to replace it. Congress has appeared ready to increase the stakes, threatening to punish any European companies that sell arms to China from doing defense business in the United States.

Though European officials cited the anti-secession law as the reason for maintaining the embargo for the immediate future, some Chinese analysts said it was the United States that played the decisive hand.

"The United States is worried about China's rise," said Pan Wei, a political theorist at Beijing University. "Most people think this is not really about European opinion, but rather another strong indicator that the U.S. has an unfriendly policy toward China."

Pan said that the anti-secession law did not appreciably increase the risk of war with Taiwan and may have diminished the risk.