Fresh from legitimizing Burma’s military junta with a seat at the annual Asia-Europe Meeting this weekend, European leaders are now considering something far worse: ending the arms embargo on the Communist regime in China.
Today, in Hanoi, the EU’s foreign ministers will be meeting to discuss the idea. Unsurprisingly, France is leading the charge: French President Jacques Chirac said his government favors lifting it despite the United States’ opposition. American officials have repeatedly pushed the Europeans to maintain the embargo, which has been in place since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But the Chinese appear to have redoubled their efforts in recent weeks to convince the EU to change its stance.
Ending the embargo is a very bad idea, one that could create a major obstacle to defense cooperation between the United States and the EU. If European governments begin sharing sensitive military technologies with a potential U.S. adversary like China, Washington will need to block European defense manufacturers from accessing certain defense technologies — something that could damage NATO and would be a step in the wrong direction for relations between the United States and Europe.
A decision to sell arms to China would also signal that Europe is no longer committed to the support for human rights that inspired the embargo 15 years ago. While M. Chirac’s coddling of dictators here (as he did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, for example) would not as a great surprise, other EU governments have shown a genuine commitment to promoting human rights. Were these governments to join France in selling arms to Beijing, which has an abysmal human-rights record, it would undermine global efforts to advance the cause of freedom worldwide.
And then there’s the worst-case scenario: A conflict over Taiwan. If Beijing were to use European military systems and hardware against American forces in such a conflict, that could do serious damage to relations between Washington and Europe.
The good news is that American officials are confident EU leaders will resist China’s entreaties. “I’m not pessimistic about the reaction we are going to get from EU governments on this,” State Department official Gregory Suchan said Thursday. The bad news is that Europe’s leaders have been pushing this idea for some time, and probably view it as a logical step in the development of European-Chinese relations, as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has suggested. If that’s the case, it could be a large step backward in Europe’s relations with the United States.