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.
China apologists claim that the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports is sufficient to limit arms sales. But they conveniently ignore the fact that the Code of Conduct is voluntary and thus not enforceable. This is why the European Parliament voted across party and national lines last month against lifting the ban until the EU Code of Conduct is made binding.
Can anything pull the Atlantic alliance's policies on arms exports together? Trade with a country with China's human-rights record must not only make economic sense; it must also fit the wider aims of foreign policy. That means, above all, avoiding trade that makes it more difficult to pursue those aims.
Just as US presidents looked foolish when they bent their foreign policy to the dictates of American wheat farmers in the 1970s and 1980s, European governments that are prepared to mortgage Asian security to a restless China also command no respect. The lesson is clear: security interests must come before business interests.
So transatlantic coordination is needed to ensure that any trade of sophisticated arms and weapons-related technologies with China does nothing to enhance China's military power and that competition between Western producers of goods that may legitimately be sold to China does not damage Western political unity.
In the Cold War era, there was a mechanism for such trade. From 1949 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Consultative Group Coordinating Committee (COCOM) monitored and controlled the export of Western technology to the Soviet Union. It did so by a gentlemen's agreement and with reasonable success. COCOM provided an opportunity to settle squabbles and plug loopholes quietly. Something similar is urgently needed now.
Charles Tannock, a British Conservative European member of parliament, is vice-chairman of the European Parliament's Human Rights Committee. Copyright: Project Syndicate