WASHINGTON – The apparent decision by European leaders to delay the lifting of their 16-year-old arms embargo on China beyond June marks a clear-cut foreign-policy victory for US President George W Bush, who made the issue a major priority in his visit to Europe last month.
China itself may have inadvertently made Bush’s victory possible. Its enactment last week of an Anti-Secession Law that lays the foundation for a possible military attack on Taiwan if, in Beijing’s judgment, it were to move toward formal independence, gave the administration powerful new ammunition against ending the ban – as well as political cover to those European governments that were wary about confronting Bush on the issue.
Europe’s decision also marks the latest in a series of Bush administration moves to try to keep rising tensions between China and Taiwan from getting out of control as part of a larger strategy to “contain” Beijing militarily, despite China’s fast-growing economic and political influence in Asia.
Particularly significant in that regard was the issuance last month of a joint Washington-Tokyo statement in which both countries declared a peaceful Taiwan Strait as among their “common strategic objectives” – the first time that Japan, which has long enjoyed close but awkward ties with Taiwan, had mentioned the area as a matter of strategic importance.
The European Union, which had committed itself in December to lifting the embargo no later than July, has yet to make a formal announcement, and negotiations are expected to continue with Washington regarding the terms on which it will be eventually lifted, led by the EU’s foreign-policy representative, Javier Solana.
But reports out of European capitals this week made it virtually certain that the final date for ending the embargo, which was imposed in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, will indeed be put off, possibly until next year.
Germany and France, the strongest champions of lifting the embargo, had tried to reassure the US that they did not intend to sell the kinds of sophisticated military or dual-use equipment that Washington fears could be used by Beijing, which has relied primarily on Russia and, until recently, Israel for arms sales, for an assault on Taiwan or for attacking US naval forces that could be deployed to defend the island.
They also stressed that ending the embargo was designed mainly to upgrade general commercial relations with Beijing, which had suggested that big European companies, such as Airbus, might be treated more favorably if the arms ban were lifted.
But these assurances were not sufficient to diminish the Bush administration’s opposition, which was given momentum by a 411-3 vote last month in the US House of Representatives on a resolution that deplored the possible lifting of the embargo and warned that doing so would be “inherently inconsistent” with US policy and “necessitate limitations and constraints” on US-European relations.
The vote was followed by the circulation among Republican senators of a policy paper that lifting the embargo would force the US “to redouble its efforts to build ad hoc coalitions of the willing on key tests and issues in the US national interest [and] … reduce its reliance on collective institutions such as the EU”.
For the administration, which has appeared divided over precisely how to treat China – whether as a “strategic competitor” or as a “strategic partner” – since it first came to office, its most immediate concern, particularly in light of its current military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to avoid conflict over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.
The Bush administration has generally adhered to the line of previous administrations: while it recognizes that Taiwan is part of “one China”, it opposes any unilateral or military action by either side to resolve the island’s eventual status.
Although at one point Bush promised to do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan if China attacked it, his administration has also left ambiguous whether and under what circumstances the US would intervene.
As a result, Washington has tried to keep the two sides from provoking each other into what could become a hot war in which the US would have to decide what to do.
In December 2003, when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian insisted that he would hold a referendum on a new constitution that China interpreted as a major step toward independence, Bush forcefully intervened, harshly assailing the plan during a White House photo opportunity with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Chastened, Chen soon backed down.
Fifteen months later, however, it appears that the Chinese may have overplayed their hand. Shocked by Chen’s unexpected re-election last March and convinced that Chen’s independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was poised to win legislative elections in December, Beijing announced its intent to enact a law forbidding the secession of any region of the country.
Despite the DPP’s defeat at the December polls, as well as more conciliatory moves by Chen toward the mainland, China’s National People’s Congress approved a watered-down version of the Anti-Secession Law on March 14. Although senior Beijing officials strenuously denied that its enactment would enhance the chances of military action, Washington called the new law “unfortunate” and “unhelpful”.
At the same time, however, it proved clearly helpful to the Bush administration’s efforts to persuade the Europeans not to lift the embargo. As British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who had previously favored ending the ban, noted this week, China’s Anti-Secession Law had “created quite a difficult political environment”.
Some European governments had already been under pressure, notably from human-rights activists, to keep the embargo in place. Some also reportedly argued that the issue was not so important or urgent to justify the risk of further alienating Washington, particularly in the immediate wake of Bush’s agreement to support ongoing negotiations by Britain, France and Germany (EU-3) with Iran about its nuclear program, when trans-Atlantic ties were already so fraught.
Whether the Anti-Secession Law was actually the straw the broke the camel’s back or simply a convenient pretext for defusing tensions with Washington remains unclear, but it marks both an important political victory for Bush and a boost for neo-conservative and nationalist hawks in and out of the administration who favor a more aggressive containment policy against China in ever-closer collaboration with both Japan and Taiwan.