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Feeding the Dragon, Hurting the Alliance

Why is Europe Eager to Sell Arms to China?

By Daniel Blumenthal and Thomas Donnelly
Sunday, February 20, 2005

The journey to Brussels and beyond that President Bush embarks on today promises to extend the happy-talk between America and Europe begun earlier this month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Stand by for further affirmation of shared values and common interests. But don’t be surprised if the moment doesn’t last.

The European Union is on the verge of lifting the arms embargo it imposed on the People’s Republic of China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. If the E.U. carries out this threat -— and make no mistake, this would be a genuinely hostile act against the United States -- the transatlantic tiffs of recent years could come to seem minor, and Bush could be saying a final farewell to old allies rather than renewing strategic bonds.

Over the past 18 months, Europeans have been asserting that the embargo, as French President Jacques Chirac told Chinese leader Hu Jintao during the latter’s visit to Paris early last year, “no longer makes any sense.” On a return visit to Beijing last October, Chirac went further, declaring that denying China advanced arms was “motivated purely and simply by hostility.” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder chimed in recently, telling Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao -- as the two signed another set of business deals -- that he, too, favored lifting the embargo.

Even British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw argues that it’s unfair to ban arms sales to Beijing as long as there’s no embargo against trading with nuclear-armed North Korea. But rather than close the loophole against Pyongyang, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government is instead pushing to have the China embargo lifted before Britain takes over the E.U. presidency in July. Apparently, there’s still enough shame left among the British that they’d prefer to have the continentals handle this dirty business.

But if the E.U. resumes trading arms to China, it will, in effect, become a full partner in the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army, already the most destabilizing trend in East Asia. By developing a large and growing fleet of ballistic and cruise missiles and submarines and acquiring Russian attack aircraft and destroyers, Beijing, with no external threat to its own security, is driving a new and extremely dangerous arms race in the Pacific.

The missing pieces of the PLA puzzle are exactly the sorts of command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems that the Europeans are getting ready to sell. These are the same technologies that make the U.S. military so effective, having been developed initially for NATO operations. Lifting the embargo would thus mean that, in a future flare-up with Beijing such as the cross-straits crisis over Taiwan in 1996 or China’s 2001 downing of an American EP-3 surveillance aircraft, U.S. soldiers would find themselves going up against an adversary armed with NATO technology.

The immediate objective of the PLA’s modernization effort is the subjugation, either by intimidation or direct military action, of Taiwan. But the larger target is the United States and its position as the guarantor of freedom and stability in the region -- what the Chinese government calls American “hegemony.” Beijing wants to develop the military capacity to deter the United States and its regional allies from acting in Asia. Lifting the embargo will go a long way toward helping the Chinese reach that goal.

It’s hard to know at this point whether the Europeans are acting like fools or knaves in this drama. Chirac makes no secret of his dream of an E.U. that acts as a “counterweight” to American hyperpower, and he’s often able to convince Schroeder that what’s good for France is also good for Germany. On its own, Europe can do very little to balance the United States, as the experience of Iraq suggests, but it can accelerate the pace at which China may emerge to play that role.

Europe’s moribund defense industries desperately crave Chinese contracts. The continent’s own anemic national procurement programs are incapable of generating enough business to keep its arms-makers afloat, and new weapons sales in the Middle East are either hard to come by or snatched up by U.S. companies. Sales to China have sustained the rump of Russia’s defense industrial base, and, Europeans figure, might do the same for their own heavily subsidized defense contractors. There’s also the related matter of commercial airline sales to consider, as China cleverly plays America’s Boeing off against Europe’s Airbus in the battle to supply Beijing’s burgeoning air travel needs.

But in preparing to lift the embargo, the Europeans are failing to take into account the potential blowback from the United States. Their myopia is understandable, given that the White House has said little about the consequences of arms sales to Beijing -- Rice was certainly in no mood for confrontation during her recent trip. Not to mention that the Bush administration has made plenty of sunny pronouncements about the overall state of Sino-American relations; last November, then Secretary of State Colin Powell called them “the best in 30 years.”

In their haste to sell weapons to Beijing, however, the Europeans have inadvertently kick-started the debate in Washington about China’s intentions. The truth is that beneath the rosy rhetoric there remains a great deal of tension. Washington is suspicious of Beijing’s military buildup, unhappy with its weapons sales to places like Pakistan and Sudan, increasingly dissatisfied with its diplomacy toward North Korea and concerned about its human rights abuses. All these worries were subordinated as long as attention was focused on Iraq and the war on terrorism -— until the E.U. threatened to act.

Already, talk of a “China threat” is reemerging in the corridors of Congress, the Pentagon and inside the Bush administration. Testifying before Congress last week, the chiefs of both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency issued warnings about Beijing’s growing militarization and what the DIA head called its “more assertive policies, especially with respect to Taiwan.” Despite a decade of engagement, China’s leadership is no more democratic today than it was after Tiananmen.

In the short term, ending the ban on trading arms to China is almost certain to undermine what transatlantic defense cooperation remains after the Cold War -- and there’s still quite a bit of it. The United States would have no choice but to assume that technology transfers to Europe would be likely to end up in Chinese hands. This should especially concern the British government, which has invested more than $2 billion in the $200-billion-plus Joint Strike Fighter program.

The long-term geostrategic implications are even more profound. European weapons in the hands of the PLA would help tip the balance in the Taiwan Strait against Taipei and pour fuel on smoldering Sino-Japanese relations. It’s ironic that a Europe that takes pride in having extracted itself from centuries of great power rivalries could now exacerbate precisely such tensions in the Pacific.

There is still time for sanity to prevail. President Bush has an opportunity this week to speak frankly about the costs and consequences of lifting the embargo. He should propose a U.S.-E.U. strategic dialogue to keep an eye on China’s threat to regional security and its human rights and proliferation records. Europe, in turn, would postpone its decision on the embargo as leaders from both sides work together to grapple with China’s rise. Opening such a dialogue will help preserve a translatlantic relationship based, as Rice put it, on the “values that unite us.”