Friday, April 08, 2005

As Much As It Pains Me to Say

For an American conservative, what I am about to say is tantamount to an act of treason (well not quite treason, but some on the right may now feel justified in calling me a "cheese-eating, surrender-monkey"), but I think this needs to be said.

France is right - and we are in fact quite wrong - to want to lift the arms embargo on China. Yes, despite even China's recent passage of the anti-secession law threatening military force against a Taiwanese break for independence, the French and those limp-wristed Europeans have it right this time. I couldn't put it any better than how French foreign minister Michel Barnier put it in yesterday's Financial Times, page 2 (from the print edition I picked up; didn't see it online):

"'There is a real, fundamental difference of perception that we have about China on both sides of the Atlantic,' he said. 'One cannot treat China like Zimbabwe.'"

"Mr. Barnier said China had evolved since the EU imposed the embargo in 1989, entering the World Trade Organization and winning the right to stage the 2008 Olympic Games. It was now 'anachronistic' to maintain the arms embargo, he said, while stressing that a strict arms export regime would could continue to apply to arms sales to China."'Our intention is at no point to multiply the sale of arms in the region. This lifting of the embargo has a political dimension,' he said."

Barnier is right; the decision to lift the embargo is not so much so Europe can arm China to the teeth, but so Europe can continue to expand trade with the Chinese because, after all, who doesn't want to do business with China now? Let me allow Tom Barnett to explain the Bush administration's backward thinking on this:

"The US can't trade with and invest in China like crazy, sell arms to both Taiwan and Japan, and then tell the EU not to do the same with China on both trade and arms. We just don't get to decide which other Core powers [if you're not familiar with Barnett's lingo, these are essentially the G-8 countries] get to arm and under what conditions. China's rising economically, and like any other country in such a trajectory, it builds up and modernizes its military. We can't stop that, but we can shape it and work to make that process dovetail with a rising security alliance between us two. But the Bush Admin seems to think they're in the driver's seat on this one, when they're not. I mean, China's supposed to keep buying our debt so we can spend lots on our military and then we get to tell them what they can or cannot buy in military arms?"

Barnier's comments come on the heals of Deputy SecState Robert Zoellick's recent trip to Europe where he implored Europe to not give in to China on this issue (I should point out that the U.S. has had success in getting the Europeans to delay removing the embargo - mainly due to the passage of the anti-secession bill). It's pretty ironic that Zoellick's leading the charge against China when, during his tenure as the U.S. trade representative, he was instrumental in getting China into the the WTO.

What worries me even more about the Bush administration's China policy is the kind of stuff I read on page 13 of the FT. The full page "Comment & Analysis" article by Victor Mallet begins with the fearful headline: "Strait ahead? China's military build-up prompts fears of an attack on Taiwan." Little background first. The Bush administration came into office in Jan. 2001 seeing China as its number one foreign policy challenge. Indeed, the collision of a China fighter jet and an American spy-plane in April 2001 only heightened those worries (remember that?). But then came 9/11 and the war on terrorism which brought about a general shift in focus, rightly so, from China to the Middle East. Now it seems, with progress being made in southwest Asia, Bush and Co. want to put China back on the "hit list" for the simple fact that China may actually match our military capacity in the coming decades - it would be the first challenge to our military (and economic) hegemony since the Soviet Union. But why are we looking for a fight when, just last month, our own National Security Council gave clearance to a deal that saw IBM sell its PC business to China's own PC-maker, the Lenovo Group?

This is not good strategic thinking, especially when you've got someone like Kim Jong-Il with nukes and no stake at all in the global economy. The view in Washington has gotten so off track on East Asian issues that I have to read a sentence like this in the FT article:

"The Taiwan Straight is regarded in Washington as the most dangerous flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific - more sensitive for now than North Korea's nuclear weapons program."

Fantastic. I know this might sound like some kind of lefty-argument, but how we can threaten and then actually go to war against Iraq, but object to China's saber-rattling over an island that only over just a half-century ago - before it broke away after the civil war - was still part of China? Are we really going to live up to our defense guarantee with Taiwan if China does attack? How does China's intention to "reabsorb" Taiwan threaten U.S. national security more than a nuclear-tipped ICBM from North Korea? That's the kicker here. And, in addition, are we willing to send the global economy to the crapper for Taiwan's independence? As I've said before, I'm quite sympathetic to the neocons' vision for the Middle East, but I don't want anything to do with what they have planned for China - for the scary fact that they're totally ignoring the whack-job on the Korean peninsula who actually wouldn't mind an epic battle to the finish.


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