The EU, after a three-year spat with US President George W. Bush, the EU is keen to be regarded as a world player to be reckoned with. Many EU leaders see newfound respect coming in the form of a "strategic partnership" with China that's designed to balance the US' power. Some want that partnership to include trade in advanced weaponry -- witness the recent push to remove the EU's 15-year-old ban on arms sales to China. Although the US objects strongly, a number of Europeans shrug off any opposition.
China is no ordinary trading partner. If not openly committed to opposing Western values and interests, China's interests in cowing Taiwan and in asserting regional hegemony across Asia certainly are not those of Europe and the West, not to mention Japan, India and the rest of Asia. Indeed, China stood with Russia, Belarus and a few other despotic regimes in prematurely recognizing the thuggish, ballot-stuffing Viktor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine. This should come as no surprise, as the Chinese government does not plan to hold free and fair elections any time soon. Indeed, perhaps Ukraine's Orange Revolution, with those thousands of protesters in Kiev's Independence Square, served as a potent reminder to China's leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests 15 years ago and -- in contrast to Ukraine -- their own strategy of brutal repression.
Although it is perhaps not as dark as 15 years ago, China's human-rights record remains abysmal. The British Foreign Office's annual human rights report for this year, the most comprehensive in the EU, condemns China's extensive use of the death penalty, even for such crimes as corruption, pimping, drug offenses and tax fraud, its systematic torture of dissidents and its restrictions on freedom of speech -- including the Internet -- and religion.
All of these abuses are raised repeatedly at EU-China summits, to little or no avail. So is this the time to end the arms ban imposed by both Europe and the US after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989?
China's human-rights record is not the only problem. It is bad enough that no mechanism exists to prevent China's government from using EU arms for internal repression. But no mechanism exists that would stop China from re-exporting the weapons to places like North Korea. Indeed, China has a track record as a serial proliferator, having helped Pakistan build its atomic bomb. Its role in providing missile and rocket propulsion materials to Iran remains unclear.
Yet France and Germany, with the UK and Italy not far behind, say such criticism is outdated. They are strongly opposed by Holland, the Scandinavian countries and the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, which are familiar with communist repression. Supporters of lifting the arms-export ban argue that this litany of sins does not reflect China's real improvements in human rights and penalizes European armaments jobs to the benefit of Russia, which enjoys a lively arms trade with its neighbor (something it might one day regret).
For France, lifting the embargo is also an important symbol, one that recognizes China's role in fighting Islamist terrorism. Libya had such EU restrictions lifted last October, ostensibly for joining the fight against terrorism and abandoning its weapons of mass destruction. In addition, those in favor of reviving the EU-China arms trade see such sales as a stabilizer in bouts of political turbulence and are loath to let bad politics interfere with good business.