Next month’s meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade in China will feature a familiar ritual. American negotiators will face intensified pressure for Washington to lift restrictions on the sale of military and dual-use technology to China. Over time, the perennial drip-drip of Beijing’s complaints against U.S. trade discrimination in this area, bolstered by American business desires to close the trade gap, has proved effective.
Despite growing recognition that the security threat from China is real and increasing, the U.S. government is lowering its guard by facilitating the sale of technology that can enhance Chinese military capabilities—beyond what China has already stolen through conventional and cyber espionage.
China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas has raised concerns among its neighbors that its rise might not be as peaceful as Beijing has claimed. Southeast Asian countries openly describe it as aggressive. When Xi Jinping took over China’s helm from the unpopular Hu Jintao this year, many in the West expressed the cautious hope that he would begin reforming the political system and moderating China’s foreign policy.
Instead, Xi accelerated a crackdown on the media, dissidents, and the Internet. He invokes the teachings and governing style of Mao Zedong to advocate purity of Communist thought and practice. He declares as his theme of governance the “China dream” of greatness. But in a series of early visits to installations of the People’s Liberation Army, he made clear that military power is paramount in those aspirations. He urged military units to prepare for “actual combat” and has continued the provocative expansion of the Chinese presence in disputed maritime areas, creating “facts on the ground” on islands, shoals, and reefs, while repeatedly challenging Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Yet the response of the West to the hardening line of this putative reformer has been to continue undoing many of the military safeguards put in place after the harsh turnaround of an earlier anticipated political reformer, Deng Xiaoping. After the traumatic decades of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Deng’s opening of China’s economy beginning in 1979 encouraged many in the West to believe that political change would not be far behind.
Those hopes were dashed in the regime’s bloody crackdown on China’s democracy movement in June 1989. The naked brutality of the onslaught of tanks and guns against peaceful students shocked the West. Suddenly the diminutive leader who donned a 10-gallon hat and charmed the American public seemed less benign, exposing the essentially unchanged nature of China’s Communist government. When democratic push came to authoritarian shove, the regime would act in ways reminiscent of the worst of Mao’s teaching—that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Moreover, a system that acted so bloodily against its own people revived concerns regarding its intentions toward its neighbors.
Tiananmen triggered a range of Western economic and political sanctions against the Chinese government. Congress prohibited the export of crime control arms that could be used against domestic dissidents as well as larger weapons systems that a more powerful Chinese military could deploy against democrats in Taiwan or Japan. The European Union imposed a parallel embargo on arms that would serve either “internal repression or external aggression.” Tiananmen had fundamentally altered the West’s perceptions of the nature of the Chinese government and the long-term prospects for a genuinely friendly relationship based on shared values. Western prudence in arming China now seemed in order.
Ever since, Beijing has conducted a relentless campaign to roll back the restrictions as impeding “normal” China-U.S. and China-EU relations and—American and European companies echo this—as costing the West business and jobs. Washington has pressed our European allies not to let up on their own sanctions, which they came close to doing in 2005. European concerns about China’s ongoing human rights depredations helped hold the line then.