President Bush yesterday expressed “deep concern” that the European Union is planning to lift its arms embargo against China, suggesting that Beijing might use new weaponry against Taiwan, a move that could pose a threat to U.S. forces and other countries in the region.
“There is deep concern in our country that a transfer of weapons would be a transfer of technology to China, which would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan, and that’s of concern,” Mr. Bush said in a joint press conference in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
It was the first time that the president publicly addressed Europe’s desire to lift its arms embargo, which it imposed after Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Congressional aides said yesterday that Congress is considering legislative action to restrict U.S. technology transfers to Europe if the European Union follows through, which it has said it plans to do as early as June. Yesterday in Brussels, Mr. Bush also threatened the Europeans with possible congressional action.
Earlier this month, the House passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, warning the European Union that lifting the embargo could lead to restrictions on U.S. technology transfers to Europe.
The Senate is expected to pass a similar resolution.
“The resumption of arms sales to China represents a potential serious threat to the security of the U.S., Japan and Taiwan, and a diminishment of the European Union’s stated commitment to democratic values,” Mr. Hyde said yesterday through a spokesman.
“In the mad dash to secure lucrative Chinese contracts, more thoughtful Europeans might want to assess the potential damage to trans-Atlantic defense cooperation.”
For his part, Mr. Bush warned that Europe’s plan to limit arms transfers after lifting the embargo through a “code of conduct” would have to be sold to the U.S. Congress.
The president said he raised his concerns during meetings with French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the European Union.
“And they, to a person, said, ‘Well, they think they can develop a protocol that isn’t — that shouldn’t concern the United States,’” he said. “And I said, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing it’ and that they need to make sure that if they do so, that they sell it to the United States Congress.
“But the Congress will be making the decisions as to whether or not — as to how to react to what will be perceived by some, perhaps, as a technology transfer to China,” he added.
Mr. Bush said both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have warned European leaders about “the concerns of the United States” on lifting the arms embargo.
“They’re listening to the concerns of the administration, as first articulated by Secretary of State Rice, and they know the Congress’ concern,” he said.
“And so they will try to develop a plan that will ease concerns,” he added. “Now, whether they can or not, we’ll see.”
A European Union fact sheet, issued to reporters after Mr. Bush’s press conference, said the European code would require member states to regulate licensing and technology transfers, emphasize export controls and promised “increased sharing of information and transparency.”
An administration official in Brussels said the White House would have to study the details before responding.
Mr. Chirac said in a separate press conference after Mr. Bush’s that the European Union still intends to end the embargo, saying it was no longer justified.
A Bush administration official involved in Asian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the United States opposes lifting the EU embargo primarily because the arms and technology will end up threatening U.S. forces.
“The immediate threat is to Taiwan. The potential for U.S. involvement in a Taiwan scenario is very real,” the official said. “Any assistance to the Chinese military is a great concern to us. The trend lines are not good, and China is building up its forces aggressively.”
The Chinese military buildup was discussed last week in Senate testimony by CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who said that “improved Chinese capabilities threaten U.S. forces in the region.”
Additionally, Japan and other Asian nations fear that China could augment its growing military power with advanced European weaponry and use that power against them.
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura urged the European Union to retain the arms ban in a recent telephone conversation with Javier Solana, secretary-general of the Council of the European Union.
The minister said lifting the arms ban “would seriously affect the security of not only Japan, but also other countries in the East Asian region,” Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported.
China’s record of arms proliferation to states like North Korea and Iran is another reason the Bush administration wants the ban kept in place.
“The Chinese don’t have the capability to fully implement export controls to control proliferation, and proliferation is a concern,” said the U.S. official involved in Asian affairs, adding, “We don’t know that sensitive technology imported by China will stay in China.”
Strategically, the Chinese government appears to be using pressure on Europe to lift the embargo as a way to create a EU-China entente aimed at countering U.S. influence in both Asia and Europe, the official said.
“This drive to lift the embargo is coming at a time when we should be working with Europe to manage the rise of China,” the official said. “This is not the time to let China play one of us off the other.”
The official said the arms embargo is “clearly part of a Chinese attempt to drive a wedge between us and our friends.”
Richard Fisher, a private-sector specialist on the Chinese military, said weak controls by European states already have boosted China’s military.
“The Europeans already sold the [People’s Liberation Army] new anti-satellite warfare technology, and helped them with a new fighter-bomber for air and naval forces, courtesy of Rolls Royce jet engine technology,” Mr. Fisher said.
Additionally, defense firms in France and Germany are providing Beijing’s military with diesel engines that will be built into a new class of warships and a new attack submarine, said Mr. Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessments and Strategy Center.
A recent Senate Republican report on the EU embargo warned against lifting the ban.
The report said China’s arms-buying efforts show that the military there has a dual-track approach. China is buying “hard” capabilities such as fighter aircraft, submarines, surface ships and anti-ship cruise missiles from Russia.
China wants the arms ban lifted to develop “soft” military capabilities through enabling technology from Europe, especially command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance goods.
“These softer capabilities, what the Europeans call nonlethal items, are really more dangerous than the platforms Russia sells, because at present, [China] has difficulties putting its missiles on target,” the report said.
Bill Gertz reported from Washington and Bill Sammon reported from Brussels.