China has been pursuing a sharp upgrade in its military capabilities, leading to concern in the United States about a change in the balance of power in the Pacific, where U.S. forces dominate. The European Union's desire to lift its 15-year-old arms embargo against China is adding to the concern.
Earlier this month, the European Union dispatched a delegation to Washington to try to convince the Bush administration, and especially members of Congress, to accept its plan to lift its arms embargo against China. The Europeans say they would replace the embargo with a Code of Conduct that would be more effective in controlling the level of technology China could buy from the West.
Key members of Congress were not impressed, including Richard Lugar, one of the senate's leading Republicans and chairman of its Foreign Relations Committee.
"I've long championed ties with our European allies, and I also favor appropriate engagement with China,” he said. “But United States national security interests could be harmed if the European Union countries sell sophisticated weapons technology at this time to China."
The senior Democrat on the committee, Senator Joseph Biden, agreed, and struggled for the words to express the intensity of his objection to the European Union's plan.
“The EU, in my view, is acting, how can I say this tactfully? Well, I probably can't say it tactfully. I think this is a very, very dangerous decision," added Mr. Biden.
Senator Biden noted that some members of Congress have threatened trade retaliation against Europe if it lifts its arms embargo against China.
European officials and analysts say the U.S. concerns are misplaced. Speaking Wednesday at the EU summit in Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said it is "unfair" to continue the embargo so many years after the event that triggered it. The embargo was imposed after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.
European officials also say the embargo is not very effective, and their proposed 'strengthened Code of Conduct' would prevent the most sophisticated and sensitive military technology and equipment from being sold to China. They also say that China will build its military capability with or without Western help, and that it will be better in the long term to be engaged with China and to potentially influence the way it uses its growing military power in the future.
At the Washington office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an advocacy group sponsored by Germany's Social Democrats, analyst Dieter Dettke says the current embargo is too vague and only hurts the West's ability to influence China's foreign policy.
"Lifting the embargo is practically a symbolic act,” he said. “We lift the embargo in order to make clear that we want a normal situation with China. And we don't want to do this unconditionally. We also want to make clear that our relationship is regulated through common standards [on] how to use arms and how to behave peacefully."
Mr. Dettke also notes that Russia is now China's main arms supplier, a situation he says is not good for Europe or the United States from either a strategic or economic point of view.
A senior Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity dismissed the European view, saying it's easy for Europeans to say lifting the embargo won't create any new dangers in the Pacific, because they are highly unlikely to be involved in any Pacific war. The official also noted that in spite of some policy disagreements and the accidental bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the United States and China have a strong military-to-military relationship. And he said it is possible to maintain such a relationship, as well as other ties to China, without selling the country military equipment.
Some U.S. critics of the EU plan accuse Europe of having a mainly commercial motivation, wanting to increase its sales to China of not only military goods but also civilian aircraft and other expensive items. They also worry that lifting the embargo sends a message of approval of China's human rights policy, which they say is the wrong signal to send because China still holds political and religious prisoners, severely limits free expression and refuses to allow any significant political opposition to Communist Party rule.
And there are other concerns, too, including one mentioned by Senator Lugar.
"Our first concern must be stopping the proliferation of weapons technology,” said Mr. Lugar. “China has sold weapons and associated technology to rogue states in the past. China's military is aggressively seeking more advanced weaponry and electronics for its ongoing modernization. Europe will have little practical control over where that key technology may end up."
Members of Congress and others are concerned that any advanced equipment and technology with military applications that is sold to China could be re-exported to North Korea and other countries where the United States and its allies would not want it to go.
But the immediate concern about helping China's military buildup is related to Taiwan. China's legislature has just passed a law authorizing the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, if the island moves for independence or all other reunification efforts fail.
President Bush mentioned that concern during his recent visit to Europe.
"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," he said.
Some analysts say the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait has already shifted to China. They say lifting the European arms embargo would only make things worse by making it militarily more difficult for the United States to come to Taiwan's aid if that became necessary.
U.S. Defense Department officials acknowledge that China's efforts have changed the military equation in the Pacific in the last five years, and they say it is continuing to change rapidly. They say the United States still has the ability to meet any challenge from China, or any other nation in the Pacific, although more force may be needed, and more casualties may result from any conflict.
The strong U.S. opposition to lifting the China arms embargo surprised many European officials. Because of that and the new Chinese law on Taiwan they now say they want to initiate a "strategic dialogue" with the United States about China, and will likely delay any lifting of the embargo, which had been expected by June.