Int'l Herald Tribune

In Europe, public turns toward U.S. on China

By Judy Dempsey
International Herald Tribune
Friday, March 25, 2005

BERLIN When a foreign minister from a small country in Europe was asked what he thought about plans by the European Union to end the arms embargo against China, he raised his eyes, sighed and replied, "We are against lifting it."

When asked if he had made this position clear at the regular meetings of EU foreign ministers, he said, 'No.'

"France and Germany are pushing this issue very hard," he added. "Other countries are falling into line.

"We know the Americans hate the idea that Europe is trying to lift the embargo while Britain is trying to tighten the rules for exporting weapons to China if it is lifted. But what can we say? We are a small country."

France and Germany have done most of the running on this issue since late 2003, when the idea to lift the embargo was first raised at an EU summit meeting in Brussels.

At the time, they said that the EU arms embargo imposed on China in response to the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square in 1989 was no longer relevant. China, they said, was a changed country.

What they did not add, however, was that Beijing had been lobbying both Paris and Berlin, its biggest trading partners in Europe, to end the embargo.

"The embargo was an embarrassment to China," said Gudrun Wacker, director of Asia studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "China was desperate to have it lifted."

Once again, France and Germany find themselves pitted against the United States, a replay of two years ago, when the two countries had led the opposition in Europe to the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

At the time, both France and Germany said Iraq was threatening no other country and, in any case, more time should be given to the United Nations to establish if Iraq still had chemical or biological weapons.

Such opposition to the war earned Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Jacques Chirac wide public support at a time when public opinion was not simply against the war.

It had become increasingly anti-American, or at least deeply hostile to the Bush administration, because of Iraq and other issues, like the administration's policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or its reluctance to support the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Now, France and Germany are leading the way to end an arms embargo against a country that, according to human rights organizations and security experts, violates human rights, is expanding its nuclear capability and threatens its neighbors.

China, for example, has openly threatened, and has a law to justifying, the use of military force against Taiwan in an effort to thwart any independence. It also declined during a meeting of the Parliament to use the opportunity to ratify the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights, a move that might have gone some way in reassuring human rights organizations.

"China made several tactical errors. They lost an opportunity to at least show some good will toward the Europeans," said Adam Ward, a research fellow on Asian security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

France and Germany argue that over the past 15 years China has changed and its human rights record has improved. Schröder and Chirac say Europe must move on.

A report issued this month by the independent Human Rights Watch has challenged that view. It spelled out how China continued to violate human rights on religious expression, how it coerced defendants to make false confessions, how the media was censored and how the freedom of association and the right to strike was denied.

Human Rights Watch also reported that developers working with local officials to prepare for the 2008 Olympics have used violent evictions of residents in places the Chinese authorities wanted as sites for the Games.

Despite these findings, Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, said this week at the summit meeting in Brussels that it was "not fair" to continue the embargo. Europe needed a strategic partnership with China.

"If that is the case and if Europe does want a strategic partnership with China, then that means the EU should openly discuss China's strategic interests and that includes human rights, censorship, its relations with Taiwan and other issues," said Daniel Keohane, security analyst at the Center for European Reform in London.

Slowly, public opinion in Europe is shifting, becoming increasingly skeptical about the wisdom in lifting the embargo, even if it is replaced by a code of conduct that is supposed to make it more difficult to sell weapons to China.

"By lifting the arms embargo, the Europeans take away the stigma of human rights," said Siemon Wezeman, an arms transfer expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "That is a stigma the Chinese want removed."

Opposition parties, nongovernmental groups and human rights organizations increasingly question why the embargo cannot remain in place, precisely because it was imposed for reasons of human rights. And while these movements continue to oppose what the Bush administration stands for, they agree with the administration that this is not the time to end the embargo against China.

Indeed, for the first time since the Iraqi war, European public opinion is on the side of the Americans.