If there is one subject in international politics that is likely to bring about a rupture between the United States and what is losely described as Europe but is really the EU, it will be China and relations with it. It is, perhaps, a little unfortunate that it is almost impossible for Europeans to take the moral high ground on it, much as they like to. So, they resort to weasel arguments.
Jack Straw, as we know, has announced that the EU arms embargo on China is likely to be lifted this summer. It is true that similar announcements have been made in the past by other European politicians and nothing happened as a number of member states opposed it out of a mixture of political and humanitarian principles. One of those countries in the past was Britain, but this is about to change, apparently.
I shall leave it to my colleague to deal with the arms sales to China that are already going on, despite the supposed embargo. To me these are all boxes on wheels or wings with guns attached to them. He, on the other hand, knows and loves the subject.
The politics of it, however, I can cope with. And there is no doubt at all, that China remains a live topic for political discussion in the United States for various reasons. There is the question of Taiwan, a country to which the United States is committed, no thanks to previous administrations as it is pointed out in the latest and previous editions of Commentary magazine.
In addition, Taiwan is a country that has moved a long way towards genuine democracy and support for it sits well with President Bush’s pronounced aim of spreading freedom and democracy. China, on the other hand, despite vague pronouncements by European worthies, retains the reputation of being one of the most oppressive states in the modern world, despite some economic freedom being allowed in the cities.
Here is an interesting little summary from John J. Tkacik, one of the leading experts in the United States on the present situation in China:
“EU leaders tried to persuade their Chinese counterparts at the Brussels summit to ease up on political and religious repression. They pointed to the “importance of concrete steps in the field of human rights and reaffirmed their commitment to further enhance co-operation and exchanges in this field on the basis of equality and mutual respect” and hinted that “concrete steps” were needed to help justify easing the arms ban.
Frustrated Chinese leaders quickly followed up with a series of "concrete steps." Two days later, Beijing ordered the arrest of a well-known Protestant “house-church” pastor in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou. Four days later, police detained three well-known dissident writers. After their release, the writers told American friends, police were stationed outside their doors and followed them and their families wherever they went, "walking just two or three steps behind."
There is the question also of strategic balance in the Far East, which would be upset rather badly by China's further arming herself, though, to be fair, that is happening anyway. A ferociously armed China, aided and abetted by the EU is a danger to a number of countries in the region, who are supposed to be our allies in general terms and, more specifically, in the fight against terrorism.
On December 20, The New York Times reported that Li Boguang, a prominent human rights activist who has aided farmers in lawsuits against the government, had been arrested. The same day, Chen Ming, editor of the underground samizdat magazine China Reform, was taken away by police.
On Christmas Eve, Chinese police detained another veteran dissident writer, Yang Tianshui, in what had clearly become a post-summit crackdown on independent intellectuals. On January 6, police arrested 69-year old Roman Catholic bishop Jia Zhiguo, who at least was grateful that he had been able to spend Christmas with his flock. And these were only the cases that were reported in the Western press.”
That the debate is not about trading links with China in general but about selling arms and, parenthetically, involving China with the Galileo satellite navigation system, is best exemplified by an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe last Thursday (January 27).
Under the heading Make PCs, Not War, it argued simultaneously against the foolish, short-sighted and potentially dangerous plan to lift the arms embargo and in favour of the sale of International Busness Machines' personal computer business to Lenovo Group, China's largest computer maker.
The latter is being opposed on spurious defence and security but really protectionist grounds by various politicians and lobby groups. But as the editorial concludes:
"It's a shame that commercial protectionism is muddying the waters of serious discussion about the sale of militarily sensitive Western technology to China."The wrongness of that sale and the ridiculousness of the European assurances that they will get the Chinese government to sign ever stiffer agreements about the use of those arms (they must be laughing their heads off in Beijing) is highlighted by John Tkacik in his most recent Heritage Foundation WebMemo. As is the wont with the researchers of Heritage, he ends by suggesting a course of action for the new administration.
(One must admit, it is never quite clear how many of these courses of action are actually taken up by the Bush administration. On the other hand, more attention is paid to this kind of political research and, mostly, in-depth briefing by politicians in Washington DC than in Westminster or Whitehall. More’s the pity, from our point of view.)
Tkacik suggests that American diplomats should, if they "truly want to derail the EU's efforts to lift the embargo" should:
- ignore the Commission and concentrate on trying to persuade various member states, particularly the new ones, as these still remember what a totalitarian regime is like;
- focus on the fact that the arms embargo was put into place in response to massive human rights abuses in 1989 and the situation has become, if anything worse;
- highlight China’s record of conventional arms transfer (well, sale, actually) to Third World countries with dubious records;
- insist on a dialogue on China as part of all Atlantic Alliance strategic consultations.
None of this sounds precisely oppressive or radical, though, no doubt it will be take as such by the few europhile organizations that bother to read American output. The problem is that there is a misunderstanding of the mentality that pushes the EU and its cheerleaders towards this potentially very dangerous act, the lifting of the arms embargo.
The idea of trying to influence individual member states is often brought up by Heritage and other like-minded American organizations. It is rather well-meaning but quaintly out of date, in that it does not acknowledge the many powers that individual member states have handed over to the EU.
In this case, however, it does make some sense. Decision will be taken by consensus and united opposition from the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and the East Europeans can stop it in its track.
The rest of it, alas, will not work. The truth is that the EU and its large member states do not care all that much about China's human rights record or the sale of arms to Third World countries with similar problems. The latter, they think, is really America’s problem or something they can wring their hands over impotently.
The former? Well, they really do not want to know and resort to euphemisms and assurances that there is good evidence (unspecified) for Chinese desire to improve that record.
As far as France, Germany and the UK are concerned, the motivation is straightforward: lucrative contracts. Unfortunately, that sort of motivation sits ill with the supposedly ethical foreign policy of the EU, whose avowed purpose it is to spread freedom, democracy and human rights.
In fact, this selfishness is decried by Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform, once upon a time the leading perestroika europhile organization, but now simply a cheerleader for the EU and European integration.
In her paper The EU and China she decries the selfishness of the big three in not giving unstinted support to the Commission and in “disregarding pre-agreed EU positions”, which, by offering the carrot of the market economy status could achieve a great deal more in bilateral negotiations. What the great deal more, Ms Barysch does not specify, probably just as well. Perhaps lucrative contracts for the companies of some other member states.
I would strongly recommend that American commentators read what Ms Barysch has to say. Past experience suggests that there is a symbiotic relationship between the CER’s papers and British government statements on the European Union.
Here is the key paragraph:
“Looking forward, the EU and China should be able to build a stronger partnership on their many common interests and attitudes. Both are suspicious of the US's untrammelled power and strongly support a multilateralism that is based on the United Nations and international law.
Human rights? Well, the "Nordic countries claim that China has not done enough to improve its human rights situations". Silly them.
Both stress the need for sustainable economic growth. Both believe that 'soft' power, the ability to persuade, can be a more effective means of achieving foreign policy objectives than armed force. Both tend to be too busy with their own internal problems to expend much energy on global politics. But both know that they need to become more pro-active in resolving explosive conflicts, for example in the Middle East, not least because both the EU and China depend on imported energy.
In contrast to the US-China relationship, the tricky question of Taiwan does not loom large in EU-China relations, at least for now.”
While one is, of course, delighted that the tricky question of Taiwan (how tricky exactly?) does not raise its ugly head, one wonders whether Ms Barysch has been watching the same country as the rest of us.
China believes in international law and the UN? Really? Since when? And it does not believe in force? My, my. I wonder what all that armoury that is pointing at Taiwan is.
She certainly believes in getting the best possible deal in the Middle East and pays little attention on what the various states it deals with get up to otherwise. That, of course, may change as China has reported a discovery of large oil deposits and is, in any case, as my colleague has reported some time ago, working hard on the nuclear alternative.
So what does that leave us of the "many common interests and attitudes"? Alack and alas, only one: an opposition to the United States. Is this really what we want to be part of – a foreign policy that desperately seeks an alliance with some of the worst dictators in the world in order to oppose the largest democracy and our closest ally for some time? Apart from the moral side, can we honestly say that this is in our interest?