March 25, 2004

March 25, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Will Europe arm Red China?

A bitter dispute over election results is bad enough. But Taiwan's troubles - and ours - may be just beginning.

The reason: Our European allies might well approve plans to sell China advanced weaponry at the March 25-26 European Union summit that begins today.

The repercussions would be disastrous. Not only could China use new weapons from Europe against Taiwan, but Chinese generals have said they're prepared to confront U.S. forces in the Pacific if America tries to help Taiwan.

Why would NATO allies put the United States in this position? Money is one reason. But European commentators suspect that France and China want to build a multipolar alliance to counter American "hegemony."

This rings true, if only because the justifications Europeans proffer for renewed arms sales are patently fraudulent. Like the United States, the EU embargoed all arms sales to China after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since then, Beijing has steadily introduced market reforms for China's economy, but its political, religious, and labor suppression has, if anything, worsened.

Senior Chinese diplomats recently held talks with EU officials to persuade them to lift the ban. They hint that if the EU lifts the sanctions, China will steer its big-ticket civilian purchases, including aircraft, power stations, and mass transit, away from American vendors to EU firms.

Last December, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced in Beijing that Germany was amenable to ending the embargo. European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy added his support to Schroeder's proposal.

Not to be outdone, French President Jacques Chirac invited Chinese President Hu Jintao to Paris. Ignoring the complaints of French human-rights groups, Chirac designated 2004 the "Year of China" and threw one of the most extravagant receptions France has ever given a foreign leader. One highlight: the Eiffel Tower bathed in red floodlights, a first ever for the Parisian landmark.

Perhaps the red lights blinded Chirac to China's massive missile threat to Taiwan - more than 500 short-range ballistic missiles now aimed at the island, with 75 new missiles deployed each year. He vehemently condemned Taiwan's plans to hold a referendum to protest the missiles. As for the embargo, it "no longer makes any sense," Chirac announced.

France now calls China "a special partner...playing a key and responsible role in the international system" and declares that the EU "should encourage it in this direction to contribute to international stability and security, especially in Asia." This despite China's growing missile threat to Taiwan, its support of North Korea's right to have nuclear weapons as a "legitimate security concern" against a U.S. threat, and Beijing's increasingly vitriolic criticisms of Hong Kong's hugely popular democratic party.

France's sudden announcement of joint naval exercises with China the week before Taiwan's election caught U.S. officials by surprise. As the Asian Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, "politically, France has for years now coveted an alliance with China to further Paris's goal of a 'multipolar world,' which is really a euphemism for constraining U.S. power."

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department seems unsure how to approach EU allies. According to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the United States has "talked with Europeans about the wisdom of lifting the embargo because of our concerns about human rights." A review of the State Department's annual human-rights reports from 1990 to 2003 shows that China either has made no progress from year to year or has grown worse.

But the defense ramifications loom even larger. A senior Pentagon official recently warned Congress that "China's ability to acquire, integrate and thereby multiply its force posture has really increased dramatically." Most worrisome, he said, is the fact that "there are scenarios where we could actually be involved in [the defense of Taiwan], so any contribution to the other side of the equation complicates our position and that is why we're opposed."

China's $65 billion defense budget is the second largest in the world after the United States, and China is aggressively modernizing its military. It seeks the most modern military technology available. China still threatens Taiwan with war, and the United States has strategic, moral, and legal obligations to help democratic Taiwan defend itself.

An EU decision to proceed with arms sales to the world's most powerful dictatorship could strain the Atlantic alliance to the breaking point. If commercial advantage in China's market is all the Europeans want, perhaps they can be talked out of this. But if they're determined to enlist China in an alignment to hem in American "hegemony," then the Atlantic alliance may be on its deathbed.

- John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared on National Review Online