A year ago, French President Jacques Chirac set out the core of a new strategic vision that would exclude the United States in favor of a European realignment with China. "Reasons of international balance justify strengthening links between Europe and China, I'd even say between Europe, Russia and China," he told an audience in Shanghai.
What a difference a year makes. By the time Chinese President Hu Jintao concludes his travels through Britain, Germany and Spain next week, he is likely to have found a Europe very different from the Chirac vision that China had hoped for. That's particularly evident on the crucial issue of the European Union arms embargo, which Beijing came close to persuading the EU to lift earlier this year.
Germany has a new chancellor-designate, Angela Merkel, who made clear during September's elections that she opposed lifting the arms embargo. Suggestions by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing last week that she might soften her stance once in office, in order to help Siemens win a 1.3 billion euro ($1.5 billion) contract to build a bullet train line between Shanghai and Guangzhou, drew a swift response. "The arms embargo question can only be resolved at the European level and in close intercommunication with our trans-Atlantic partners," Friedbert Pfluger, foreign-policy spokesman for Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party said Monday. He later added that the issue was "not on the agenda" at present.
The message was clear. Germany's new chancellor is not interested in continuing her country's past complicity with the Chirac vision of a new world order, in which a French-led EU aligned with China and Russia would act as a counterweight to the U.S. And the prospects of Beijing persuading the EU to end the arms embargo look more remote than before.
For all Mr. Hu's warm reception in Britain, during his three day visit that ends today, there was no hint that Prime Minister Tony Blair had softened his stance on the arms embargo. Beijing had hoped that Austria, which takes over the EU presidency from the British in January, would be more amenable. But the Austrians are already trying to dodge the issue, making it clear their six-month presidency will be overloaded with other contentious issues -- from the EU budget for 2007-2013 to the problematic future of the European constitutional process. "I would be really surprised if the arms embargo would be on top of the list for our presidency," one Austrian official told me.
While Japanese diplomats are actively lobbying to ensure the embargo stays in place, and the U.S. can be expected to add its weight, the Austrians say there is little pressure to lift the embargo from any "third countries." Even the French seem too preoccupied with their own problems to push the issue at present. That means the most likely scenario will see the issue pushed back to Asia-Europe Summit next July, by which time the Austrian presidency will be over and they can pass the baton on to Finland.
U.S. officials believe the traditionally pacifistic Finns are unlikely to show any more enthusiasm for the issue during their EU presidency than the Austrians. But the Americans are not taking any chances. China was in the spotlight during the second round of the U.S.-EU Strategic Dialogue on Asia in Washington last week. Unlike the dialogue's first round in Brussels, this round focused on "how trans-Atlantic partners can work together to shape Asia in a positive and peaceful direction."
The China arms embargo issue has awakened Washington to the strategic importance of Europe. Despite its minimal standing armies, Europe still commands impressive military technologies -- that China is anxious to get its hands on. Asian affairs officers in both the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department now recognize the need to make Europe a full partner, together with Japan and Australia, in managing China's rise as an emerging military superpower.
Europe has changed in the past year. Both the European Parliament and the German Bundestag have overwhelmingly passed resolutions opposing lifting the China arms embargo. France is in turmoil. Germany has a new government. The EU is under new leadership, and Mr. Chirac's specter of an European-Russian-Chinese axis against America is evaporating.
Europeans have demonstrated that they still see the U.S., Japan, Australia and the Asian democracies as their natural partners in shaping Asia -- particularly China -- in a "positive direction." But if the Atlantic alliance is to regain its traditional gravitas in global affairs, Washington and Brussels need to put aside fits of narrow, single-issue pique like their differences over the Chinese arms embargo. Instead the way forward is for the U.S. and the EU to work together with other successful democracies -- notably Australia and Japan -- in forging a shared vision of a free and democratic Asia.
John Tkacik a senior research fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in Asian Wall Street Journal