Another Perspective

The China Syndrome

In building up China, is Europe becoming America's enemy?

By 3.9.05

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When China's National People's Congress convened in Beijing on Saturday, Premier Wen Jiabao highlighted his nation's military modernization campaign and breathed threats against Taiwan. It would be hard to find a worse time for Europe to offer China military aid.

The U.S. and Europe have grown apart and the President's recent visit to the continent won't change that. Rather than dwell on past disagreements, Washington should concentrate on resolving a handful of current controversies.

It would be nice, for instance, if Europe offered to supplement the U.S. led garrison in Iraq. That's not going to happen.

But Washington might be able to convince Europe not to raise its ban on arms sales to China. The U.S. "has very specific concerns about lifting the embargo," observes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

There's much about European behavior that irritates Washington. However, the fact that the interests of sovereign nations, even ones so closely tied in the past, sometimes diverge shouldn't surprise anyone on either side of the Atlantic. America's liberation of Europe 60 years ago does not entitle Washington to Europe's unthinking support today.

Nevertheless, the U.S. and Europe share a number of interests. Perhaps most fundamental is preserving their generally free and prosperous societies.

There may be disagreements about how to do achieve certain ends -- prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, for instance. But no American or European wants to see the rise of a global hegemonic authoritarian power.

Like China.

THERE'S MUCH GOOD that has happened to the People's Republic of China over the last three decades. Virulent, murderous Maoism is gone. Beijing has moved dramatically towards free markets, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The political system remains sclerotic, but personal autonomy and religious liberty are expanding. Over the long term, it will be increasingly hard for the nominally Communist Party -- more fascist in practice -- to preserve its control.

However, further liberalization is by no means guaranteed. And even a more democratic PRC might be aggressively and dangerously nationalistic.

That wouldn't be so important if the country was, say, Burma or Zimbabwe, two other states under an EU arms embargo. But Beijing, which is likely to eventually marry the world's largest population with the largest economy, is a potential peer competitor to America.

Even that alone isn't necessarily frightening. After all, there were sometimes significant tensions between a rising U.S. and declining Britain, but they ultimately forged one of the closest international relationships in existence.

With China, however, the differences are more significant -- and could conceivably lead to war. That would be horrific, obviously, and should be avoided at almost all cost. But there are flashpoints, such as Taiwan, and if war would come, it would be in the interest of both the U.S. and Europe for America to prevail.

The European Union implemented an arms embargo after the Chinese regime's slaughter of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. But a number of European companies and governments see potential profits from servicing Beijing's arms needs; PRC defense spending has been growing around ten or so percent annually and now stands at a respectable $150 billion a year.

Some Europeans also hope to become a counterweight to America and believe a relationship with China will aid that effort. A French foreign ministry figure was quoted: "Of course we are in favor of lifting the embargo. It no longer corresponds to the reality of the Euro-Chinese strategic partnership."

The betting now is that the EU will drop the prohibition at its June meeting in Brussels.

HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS about Beijing remain valid, but that's not the most important point. International security is the issue.

If Europe itself planned on becoming a military counterweight to China, Washington could say go ahead. But for all of the European talk of establishing an independent foreign policy, even leading nations like Germany have no intention of spending the money necessary to develop serious military capabilities. The obligation for real war-fighting will remain America's.

Unfortunately, Beijing is thinking about war. It has been buying advanced Russian weapons, including long-range missiles, aircraft, guided-missile destroyers, and submarines.

Explains Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing's People's University: "China really wants to have another source for modernizing its military, especially for the possibility of military confrontation with Taiwan." And confrontation with Taiwan could easily lead to confrontation with the U.S.

Which means high-tech weapons sold by Europe could be used against America. Some EU officials point to Israeli weapons transfers to Beijing, but that is no less an unfriendly act.

Others say don't worry, we will limit the sort of weapons we sell. But that won't be much solace should conflict occur.

Another argument, articulated by French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, is that European sales might slow Chinese development of its own capabilities. "So maybe if we can sell them the arms, they will not make them. And in five years' time, they will not have the technology to make them."

Actually, even European businessmen worry that China wants to appropriate technology as much as acquire weapons. It's hard to believe that any "code of conduct," especially a voluntary one subject to individual national interpretation, would be enforceable.

The best case has been made by British diplomats, who contend that the existing ban is ineffective. They suggest creating a more limited but transparent export control regime.

It's true that Europeans weapons exports to the PRC have been rising. Beijing already has been able to purchase dual-use micro and nanosatellite technology, jet fan blades, helicopter design assistance, naval engines, and trucks, according to Richard Fisher of the Jamestown Foundation. Unfortunately, the British seem to be about the only ones who are talking about selling less rather than more.

IF EUROPE IGNORES AMERICA'S concerns, the administration's options are limited. The U.S. could deny export licenses for sensitive defense sales to companies and nations that sell to China. Beyond that would be the threat of a full-scale trade war. Which would be in no one's interest.

Hopefully a less ostentatiously dismissive Bush administration can forge a more cooperative relationship with Europe. Secretary Rice has called for a "new chapter" in relations and Washington should acknowledge the legitimacy of EU disagreements with American policy and the wisdom of rethinking outmoded institutions, such as NATO.

Most important, the U.S. must recognize the commercial sacrifice it is asking of the Europeans, while convincing them to look beyond to a future in which China's positive role is by no means assured. Washington needs to make the argument to individual governments as well as the European Commission. Indeed, the European public seems to be on Washington's side on this issue, with the European Parliament passing resolutions supporting the ban.

Engagement is a better strategy than isolation for encouraging the development of a free China. However, engagement need not mean strengthening the PRC's military.

China offers enormous economic opportunities and poses serious military threats. Luxembourg's ambassador to America, Arlette Conzemius, says that "the EU wants to show that it is a global partner of the U.S., as it grows stronger." Here's Europe's chance to do so.

Beijing will become a significant military power with or without European arms sales. In today's uncertain world there's no need to hurry the process along.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).