EU Decision to Delay China Arms Sales Big Win
apparent decision by European leaders to delay the lifting of their
16-year-old arms embargo on China beyond June marks a clear-cut
foreign policy victory for U.S. President George W. Bush, who made
the issue a major priority in his visit to Europe last month.
itself may have inadvertently made Bush's victory possible. Its
enactment last week of an anti-secession law that lays the foundation
for a possible military attack on Taiwan if, in Beijing's judgment,
it moves toward formal independence, gave the administration powerful
new ammunition against ending the ban, as well as political cover
to those European governments that were wary about confronting Bush
on the issue.
decision also marks the latest in a series of administration moves
to try to keep rising tensions between China and Taiwan from getting
out of control as part of a larger strategy to "contain"
Beijing militarily despite China's fast-growing economic and political
influence in Asia.
significant in that regard was the issuance last month of a joint
Washington-Tokyo statement in which both countries declared a peaceful
Taiwan Strait as among their "common strategic objectives"
the first time that Japan, which has long enjoyed close but
awkward ties with Taiwan, had mentioned the area as a matter of
European Union (EU), which had committed itself in December to lifting
the embargo no later than July, has yet to make a formal announcement,
and negotiations with Washington regarding the terms on which it
will be eventually lifted, led by the EU's foreign policy representative,
Javier Solana, are expected to continue.
reports out of European capitals this week made it virtually certain
that the final date for ending the embargo, which was imposed in
the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators
in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989, will indeed be put off,
possibly until next year.
and France, the strongest champions of lifting the embargo, had
tried to reassure Washington that they did not intend to sell the
kinds of sophisticated military or dual-use equipment that Washington
fears could be used by Beijing, which has relied primarily on Russia
and, until recently, Israel for arms sales, for an assault on Taiwan
or for attacking U.S. naval forces that could be deployed to defend
also stressed that ending the embargo was designed mainly to upgrade
general commercial relations with Beijing, which had suggested that
big European companies, such as Airbus, might be treated more favorably
if the arms ban were lifted.
these assurances were not sufficient to diminish the administration's
opposition, which was given momentum by a 411-3 vote last month
in the House of Representatives on a resolution that deplored the
possible lifting of the embargo and warned that doing so would be
"inherently inconsistent" with U.S. policy and "necessitate
limitations and constraints" on U.S.-European relations.
vote was followed by the circulation among Republican senators of
a policy paper that lifting the embargo would force the U.S. "to
redouble its efforts to build ad-hoc coalitions of the willing on
key tests and issues in the U.S. national interest [and]
reduce its reliance on collective institutions such as the EU."
the administration, which has appeared divided over precisely how
to treat China whether as a "strategic competitor"
or as a "strategic partner" since it first came
to office, its most immediate concern, particularly in light of
its current military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to
avoid conflict over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
Bush administration has generally adhered to the line of previous
administrations: while it recognizes that Taiwan is part of "one
China," it opposes any unilateral or military action by either
side to resolve the island's eventual status.
at one point Bush promised to do "whatever it takes" to
defend Taiwan if China attacked it, the administration has also
left ambiguous whether and under what circumstances the U.S. would
a result, Washington has tried to keep the two sides from provoking
each other into what could become a hot war in which the U.S. would
have to decide what to do.
December 2003, when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian insisted
that he would hold a referendum on a new constitution that China
interpreted as a major step toward independence, Bush forcefully
intervened, harshly assailing the plan during a White House photo
opportunity with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Chastened,
Chen soon backed down.
months later, however, it appears that the Chinese may have overplayed
their hand. Shocked by Chen's unexpected reelection in March and
persuaded that Chen's independence-minded Democratic Progressive
Party (DPP) was poised to win legislative elections in December,
Beijing announced its intent to enact a law forbidding the secession
of any region of the country.
the DPP's defeat at the polls, as well as more conciliatory moves
by Chen toward the mainland, China's National People's Congress
approved a watered-down version of the anti-secession law March
14. Although senior Beijing officials strenuously denied that its
enactment would enhance the chances of military action, Washington
called the new law "unfortunate" and "unhelpful."
the same time, however, it proved clearly helpful to the administration's
efforts to persuade the Europeans not to lift the embargo. As British
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who had previously favored ending
the ban, noted this week, the law had "created quite a difficult
European governments had already been under pressure, notably from
human rights activists, to keep the embargo in place. Some also
reportedly argued that the issue was not so important or urgent
to justify the risk of further alienating Washington, particularly
in the immediate wake of Bush's agreement to support ongoing negotiations
by Britain, France and Germany (EU-3) with Iran, when transatlantic
ties were already so fraught.
the anti-secession law was actually the straw the broke the camel's
back or simply a convenient pretext for defusing tensions with Washington
remains unclear, but it marks both an important political victory
for Bush and a boost for neoconservative and nationalist hawks in
and out of the administration who favor the pursuit of a more-aggressive
containment policy against China in ever-closer collaboration with
both Japan and Taiwan.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service