Saturday, October 23, 2004

Arms for China put US-EU ties to the test

Heisbourg is director of the Fondation pour la Recherche

AT ONE level the European Union's embargo on arms sales
to China can be seen as an anachronism, the absurdity of
which was underlined last week by the lifting of a
similar EU prohibition against Libya hardly a role model
in human rights.

The US state department, in its opposition to lifting
the EU embargo, warns of upsetting the east Asian
strategic balance.

The US has a fair point about risks to the east Asian
strategic balance: aside from prime US defence
contractors, European groups such as EADS, BAE Systems
and Thales are virtually unique in their largescale
defence systems integration capability. Open access to
Europe's defence expertise would save China time and
money in defence modernisation. China's immediate
defence objective is to deny the US easy options in the
US defence of Taiwan.

Between the US and Europe, there is a basic asymmetry
not of interests but of commitments regarding east Asia,
the main trading partner for both. All the Atlantic
partners have a common desire to see strategic stability
prevail there. Serious tension in the region would have
negative economic consequences for all.

But only the US is the external guarantor of this
stability, backed by the presence of more than 100000 US
soldiers. It is the US that would be at the receiving
end of strategic consequences of European arms sales to
China. Hence Washington's concern. This does not mean
Europeans should simply take their marching orders from
the US when it comes to their armaments policy towards
China. After all, if the embargo is maintained it is the
EU, not the US, that presumably will be punished by
China across a range of economic, financial and trade
interests. Conversely, China makes it clear advantages
will accrue to EU members if the embargo is lifted.

Washington confines itself to threats of consequences in
transatlantic defence relations if the embargo goes.
Between Chinese threats and blandishments and solid US
negativity, the difference of approach is not in
Washington's favour. Worse, Washington has given China
more "pull" by opposing the EU as the site for the
International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER),
with Cadarache in France as a prospective location.

China, along with Russia, is supporting the EU bid to
host the ITER project. Rather than threaten, the US
should demonstrate to Europe what it has to gain from
maintaining the embargo.

The China arms embargo issue is a taste of things to
come. Transatlantic relations will be determined
increasingly by the level of agreement or disagreement
on how to adapt to the rise of Chinese power. The
Europeans need to think strategically about their
relations with China and the effect on US-European

But it takes two to tango: there is no sign of broad,
high-level US-EU dialogue on China's emergence as a
world power. After the US presidential elections, this
needs to be done in the framework of much-strengthened
transatlantic summits capable of dealing with
multifaceted issues such as relations with China. This
is not likely to happen if Iraq continues to suck the
oxygen from America's ability to launch forward-looking
international policy initiatives. Financial Times

Heisbourg is director of the Fondation pour la Recherche

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