On Monday, China’s National People’s Congress approved a law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it should ever move toward a formal declaration of independence. This “anti-secession” law was approved by a vote of 2,896 to zero, which tells you something about the state of political debate in the People’s Republic. Beijing announced plans for the legislation in December and has been rattling sabers toward Taiwan disconcertingly ever since.
Next, the European Union is scheduled to lift its arms embargo on China in June. The embargo dates back to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, when both Europe and the United States imposed arms embargos to protest Chinese human-rights abuses. While the U.S. ban remains in effect, Beijing has cleverly made the lifting of the European ban a precondition for the further deepening of a “strategic relationship” with the European Union. Pushed by the governments of France and Germany, who eye lucrative commercial contracts, the EU has decided to play ball. If the embargo is lifted, it will now allow Beijing to purchase advanced European weapons systems, which will improve its capabilities by leaps and bounds.
In a video conference with EU leaders on March 2, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian pleaded with the Europeans and cautioned that lifting the embargo would “send a signal to the PRC that it does not need to adopt democracy.” He warned against tilting the military balance in the Taiwan Strait to make it even more lopsided than it already is — China has 707 tactical and 173 strategic missiles aimed at Taiwan. Equally concerned, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura has stated: “The matter of lifting the arms embargo is one of great concern not only for Japan but for East Asia as a whole.”
You would have to be an absolute knucklehead of a European politician not to see that this adds up to absolutely nerve-wrecking prospects for the people of Taiwan, and, for China’s regional other neighbors as well. Those Europeans, who care about the freedom of the people of Taiwan, human rights in China and the power balance in East Asia, need to speak up against this monumentally bad idea.
Particularly in light of China’s “anti-secession” law, some are doing just that. A coalition of German members of the European Parliament from all the major German political parties recently wrote in an open letter to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, “Lifting the embargo would stand in contradiction to human rights, to strategic long-term foreign policy, and to trans-Atlantic ties,” the group wrote. One member of the Christian Democrats described it as “a recipe for disaster.” Some European officials believe that at least half a dozen EU governments would oppose the arms sales if only someone dared stand up to the French-German juggernaut.
Here in Washington there is no doubt about the seriousness of European arms sales to China, which threaten allies and friends of the United States. In the Korean War, this country fought against Chinese and North Korean troops at huge cost in American and South Korean lives. The prospect of doing so again, with a China armed with European weapons, is just appalling. From the president down, administration officials have warned the European Union. Members of Congress are irate, drafting military sanctions on European countries that sell arms to China.
“You cannot overestimate the amount of anger in Congress over this issue,” says one congressional staffer. Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings on the lifting of the EU arms embargo, which are likely to get very heated. The seriousness of the issue has finally sunk in with Brussels; a 15-member delegation from the EU has been in Washington for the past two days hoping to persuade administration officials and members of Congress.
One European argument is that the embargo will be replaced by a voluntary code of conduct adopted by each individual country. These rules supposedly will create greater transparency and ensure that arms exported from Europe are not used in Chinese domestic repression or regional conflicts. How Europeans can think they will keep the Chinese government from repressing its own people or invading Taiwan is beyond imagining.
So, maybe the EU delegation should make its visit a listening tour, and it should also heed voices of reason at home. Europeans often pride themselves on their devotion to multilateralism and pacifism. With the lifting of the arms embargo, the EU would be trampling all over its own values.