Europe and the United States still differ on plans by the European Union to lift its arms embargo against China.
Experts say Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent trip to Europe began a much-needed warming trend in relations between the two sides, a trend they hope will continue during President Bush's trip later this month.
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, a decision that is expected to be made in the next few months.
The United States opposes the lifting of the ban, which was imposed after China's crushing of a pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After meeting in Brussels with European leaders earlier this month, Ms. Rice said Washington is still concerned about China's human rights record, especially the continued detention of 2,000 Tiananmen-era demonstrators.
"We continue to believe that the human rights concerns need to be taken into consideration in any decision that was tied to Tiananmen and now would be reversed, when in fact the elements of Tiananmen have not been resolved, the 2,000 prisoners," said Condoleezza Rice. "Also, we've made clear our concerns about the military balance, the fact there are still American forces in that region, and about the need to be concerned about the transfer of technology that might endanger, in some way, that very delicate military balance."
The secretary of state described her talks with the Europeans as fruitful, and said she believes they understood the U.S. concerns.
The Europeans argue that the embargo will be replaced by a strict code of conduct, and they also point out that the world has changed since 1989.
"It is difficult to understand why some Americans make it such a big issue, because, after all, this embargo was decided after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989," said Bernhard May, senior U.S. expert with the German Council of Foreign Relations. "But China today is quite a different China than in 1989. And, for China, the United States is the most important partner and, therefore, if the United States wants China to move in the right direction, there are many opportunities. Europe is just saying: 'Well, we are willing to go step-by-step to help China integrate into the world community, and therefore, [we're] getting rid of this outdated arms embargo."
For his part, Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, sees the embargo issue as a major thorn in Europe-U.S. relations.
"This may be one of the big mini-crises, or even more than that, in U.S.-European relations, because it's almost inevitable that the countries of the European Union will go forward and lift the arms embargo," he said. "Now, whether that leads to a flood of armaments or not is quite another matter - it may not at all. But the Bush administration is going to fight that one tooth-and-nail [vigorously], because they haven't yet here evolved a long-run policy towards relations with China, and would really like just to bring this particular matter to a screeching halt. So, this is something I think the United States and Europe are going to struggle with mightily over the next few months."
Some experts say, at the heart of the dispute is a basic disagreement on how to deal with China as an emerging power on the world stage. One of those experts is former State Department official Bruce Jentleson.
"There is a real fundamental question about whether the best thing for cooperation and stability and peace is to try to keep other powers down, or to try to bring them in," he said. "And I think that has to be taken in that context. We need an integrationist strategy with China, so that they have a strong stake in the system, and not disrupting it. Other issues in the region have to be dealt with in and of themselves, like Taiwan. But I don't think there is inherently anything wrong with what the European position is on this, if one puts it in the context of an integrationist strategy."
The proposed lifting of the arms embargo on China will certainly be on the agenda when President Bush visits Europe later this month.
The U.S. Congress has already weighed in on the issue. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution saying the lifting of the embargo puts "European security policy in direct conflict with United States security interests." The resolution also threatened what it called limitations and constraints on trans-Atlantic defense cooperation that would be unwelcome on both sides of the Atlantic. The congressmen then called on President Bush to urge the European Union to reconsider its intention to do away with the embargo.