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US, Europe at Odds Over China Arms Embargo


Europe and the United States still differ on plans by the European Union to lift its arms embargo against China.

Experts say President Bush's trip to Europe began the process of restoring transatlantic relations strained by differences over the Iraq war.

However analysts on both sides of the Atlantic also point out that a major disagreement between Washington and its traditional allies is Europe's intention to lift an arms embargo against China.

The United States is opposed to the lifting of the ban imposed after China crushed a pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. President Bush made that clear after meeting NATO leaders in Brussels a few weeks ago.

"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," the president said.

Experts say the overriding factor pushing the European Union to lift its embargo is trade: companies manufacturing weapons and weapons systems want to tap into the Chinese market.

Kenneth Lieberthal was the National Security Council's senior Asia expert during the Clinton administration. He says there are two other reasons why the European Union wants to lift the arms embargo. One is that China has a new generation of leaders and the Europeans feel the original reason for the embargo is no longer pertinent.

"Secondly and I think much more powerfully, the European Union has been trying to establish a broad strategic engagement with China," he said. "I think this is more commercial than security or diplomatic, but the Chinese have made lifting the embargo a very important issue on their agenda. The Chinese say that is in part for reasons of status, and if you will, face: the embargo suggests that the Chinese are a morally inferior regime and that is not a good basis for a strategic partner. But also, the Chinese do want access to technologies that Europe has and Russia does not have and that the Chinese military wants to obtain."

The European embargo has stopped the sale of complete weapons systems to China, such as fighter-bombers or submarines. But Rick Fisher, expert on the Chinese military, working for the organization "International Assessment and Strategy Center" in Washington, D.C., says the Europeans have been selling what they consider to be non-lethal weapons to Beijing. He says, for example, in 1996, Britain sold an airborne early warning system that China subsequently fitted on maritime patrol aircraft.

"Britain has sold China very critical micro-satellite and nano-satellite technology which has assisted China's pursuit of space weapons, weapons that it can now use to shoot down satellites, especially American satellites," he noted. "Britain has sold critical turbo-fan technology that has allowed China to complete development and has now put in production a new fighter-bomber. France and Germany have sold co-production rights for marine diesel engines which are now powering new classes of Chinese submarines and surface warships."

Experts also say Chinese officers are studying at elite European military institutions such as France's Saint-Cyr and Britain's Sandhurst.

European officials say lifting the arms embargo goes beyond the issue of selling weapons - it is a question of helping China integrate into the world community.

"Both Europe and the United States are interested in integrating China into the world community: the difference is that the United States has a clear and present strategic interest because of its commitment to Taiwan," said Timothy Garton Ash, an expert on Europe at St. John's College and Oxford University. "Europe does not have that sort of commitment to Taiwan and therefore is prepared to be a little more, shall we say, easy going on the export of military technology."

Not all experts agree that lifting the arms embargo would shift the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. One of those analysts is Willem van der Geest, Director of the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.

"I don't subscribe to that view," he said. "The balance of power in that region, especially of course the balance of power between China and Taiwan is massively in favor of China already, irrespective of European arms or not.

In trying to allay the fears of the Bush administration, European governments say the embargo will be replaced by a strict code of conduct. But many experts, including Timothy Garton Ash from Oxford University, say that will not be good enough.

"I don't think so, because at the moment, it depends on the individual member states to comply with that conduct," he said. "Would you trust a big French company or a big Italian company to abide by it? I wouldn't. On the other hand, this issue has gone so far that it would involve a huge loss of face for the European Union if it now totally stepped back."

The European Union is expected to decide on whether to lift the embargo in the next few months. It has to be a unanimous decision by the 25-member EU. Portugal, Ireland and some Nordic countries have expressed some reservations about the move.

In Washington, the U.S. Congress is keeping a close watch on developments. Some senators and congressmen have threatened retaliatory measures against the European Union if it lifts its 15-year arms embargo against China.

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