THE GENERAL SECRETARY of China's Communist party could not have expected a better reception if he'd been Charles de Gaulle liberating Paris. The Eiffel Tower was illuminated in red and a Chinese cultural parade made its way down the Champs Elysées in honor of Hu Jintao's visit to France. While there, Hu received a number of tributes, including President Jacques Chirac's denunciation of the elected leader of Taiwan and his pledge to torpedo the European Union's embargo on arms sales to China.
According to Chirac, "the embargo no longer makes any sense today. It's obviously not likely to change the strategic balance of power. It will be lifted, I hope, in the coming months." And in case Hu was daydreaming, "I repeat: France is very much in favor of this." So is much of Europe. Germany has long made noises about lifting the embargo. Sweden has weighed in. No one wants to be left behind. "If we were the only country to refuse lifting this embargo, it would lead to diplomatic problems . . . and would not be good for economic relations," said Dutch prime minister Jan Balkenende.
If the arms embargo is lifted--and a review is underway within the E.U. bureaucracy (requested, incidentally, days after President Bush himself rebuked Taiwan's president while giving the Chinese prime minister an Oval Office reception)--France will have led the way in removing the last significant European sanction imposed after the 1989 massacre of democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. While it may be satisfying to criticize the French for craven pursuit of China's market, there is a bit more going on here, and potentially much more at stake if the embargo is lifted.
At the time the E.U. imposed its arms embargo, Paris was considered as tough as any capital. In the midst of celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, France welcomed student and dissident refugees from the Chinese crackdown. Foreign minister Roland Dumas denounced the execution of three demonstrators weeks after the June 4 massacre, saying, "The totalitarian machine, in all its horror, is rolling. It turns what should be judicial decisions into veritable murders."
Within a few years, however, the French reversed themselves. In the early 1990s, Beijing punished Paris for selling jets and frigates to Taiwan, shutting down a French consulate in southern China, the center of China's economic boom, and exacting other commercial revenge. (In fact, Dumas himself opposed the Taiwan sales as an impediment to close relations with Beijing.) By 1994, France promised not to sell any more arms to Taiwan.
Next to go was the pledge to make human rights an issue in international forums. In 1997, France killed the common European position in support of a resolution on China at the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Europeans routinely supported U.S. efforts at the commission, although these efforts were largely a booby prize contrived to mitigate President Clinton's about-face on conditioning China's most-favored-nation trade privileges on human rights improvements. With France leading the way, many other European countries followed. Denmark and the Netherlands soldiered on, only to pay the price in Chinese commercial and other retaliation, no doubt contributing to the current Dutch prime minister's wariness of being left isolated on the embargo.
President Chirac's motives, however, are not entirely mercenary. Paris's overtures to Beijing have as much to do with setting France up as a counterweight to the United States as with reaping commercial rewards. Also in 1997, Paris and Beijing signed the Joint French-Chinese Declaration for a Global Partnership. Chirac and Jiang Zemin agreed to "foster the march toward multipolarity"--a world, that is, not dominated by a single superpower--in which a "China in full growth and a united Europe will play an important role." He said he would "oppose any attempt at domination in international affairs."
Nor is France alone in its resentment of U.S. primacy. Over the past few years, a number of European politicians have expressed the need for the E.U. to "provide a balance to U.S. domination." Just after the Bush administration took office, the E.U. announced its intention to raise its "political and economic presence in Asia . . . to a level more commensurate with the growing global weight of an enlarged E.U." and then launched an effort on North Korea that was at odds with the United States.
Europe may not be able to supersede U.S. influence in Asia, which is rooted in a history of alliances, security commitments, and the presence of tens of thousands of American troops. Perhaps that is the problem. If Europeans believe their own arms sales, or political influence, insignificant, as Chirac's remarks suggested, they will fail to see any negative consequences from contributing to China's military build-up or weakening democratic states like Taiwan.
Europe can indeed complicate things. Ending its embargo would do more than just boost Europe's moribund defense industries. E.U. sales to China could advance China's military modernization at just the time when the Pentagon is predicting a shift in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait in China's favor in 2005.
While France's romancing of Beijing is galling, Washington has itself partly to blame. It was President Clinton's flip-flop on MFN for China, explicitly delinking trade privileges and human rights, that consigned to the black hole of Geneva all efforts to influence China's performance on human rights. The Bush administration's own shift on China--which includes shabby treatment of Taiwan and neglect of China's human rights situation (Washington did not even try to pass a resolution critical of China at the Human Rights Commission last year)--makes it much harder to argue that Europe should not court Beijing.
Ellen Bork, a deputy director of the Project for the New American Century, studied European policies toward Asia on a fellowship with the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund.