Commentary: Can The U.S. And Europe Make Up?

As relations heal, along comes the thorny issue of weapons sales to China

Only 18 months ago, White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had a terse, no-nonsense formula for dealing with key opponents of American policy in Iraq: Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia. Today, though, the message from the Bush Administration is all sweetness and light: The U.S. and Europe need to patch up their differences.

That's the big reason the White House has chosen Europe for Bush's first post-inaugural foreign foray in late February. "We're reaching out to Europe, and we hope Europe will reach out to us," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a December speech in Brussels. The U.S. and Europe are finding common ground in a number of areas, from restructuring NATO to crafting the latest Middle East peace initiative. "There are a lot of indications that the Europeans are being more sympathetic," notes Ezra Suleiman, European political specialist at Princeton University.

But there's one big issue that could yet mar this picture of rapprochement. It's not Iraq, or transatlantic trade spats like the one between Airbus and Boeing Co. (BA ) It's China. France, and to a lesser extent Germany, have stepped up efforts to persuade other European Union members to lift a blanket embargo on weapons sales to China by the summer. The U.S., which maintains its own embargo, is staunchly opposed to such a move.

Both bans were imposed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Washington's official line is that China's human rights record has not improved sufficiently to warrant removal of the ban. Yet what really troubles Washington is the prospect of European weapons being used against U.S. armed forces should they have to defend Taiwan. "There's something very offensive about the notion that American soldiers might be killed by weapons produced by allies and sold to China over our objections," says Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a top Asia hand in the Clinton Administration who's now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. There's no immediate danger of a war, even if China now says Taiwan is its principal security threat. But China is building a ring of offensive missiles on its side of the strait, and is interested in purchasing sophisticated components and systems from European suppliers.

Why would Europe persist in ending an arms embargo with China just when it's trying to mend relations with the U.S.? Europeans say the current policy unreasonably lumps China with rogue states like Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe -- the only other targets of EU arms embargoes. And the Chinese are indicating that stepped-up business with European companies like aerospace giant EADS could depend on lifting the embargo.

NATO sources say that U.S. officials pleaded with the Europeans not to lift the ban in the runup to a December EU summit. To no avail. Now some U.S. policymakers and foreign-policy hands are simmering. "It strikes me as almost outrageously provocative," says Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

A confrontation over China would have plenty of unforeseen consequences. The Europeans say the Pentagon has made veiled threats that U.S.-EU military technology cooperation is at risk. If the embargo is lifted, EADS can forget about any U.S. deals for its transport planes or other armaments.

Is there a way out? Talks are under way to find a compromise. "Having a serious discussion about weapons sales to China is a lot smarter than telling Europeans they would be severely punished if the embargo was lifted," says François Heisbourg, an adviser to the French government. One possibility would be to allow Europeans to sell weapons that don't pose a specific threat to the kind of highly networked electronics and defense systems the U.S. would deploy in a showdown over Taiwan. Constructing a common approach to China as a strategic power would be the surest sign yet that U.S.-European relations are improving. Failure to compromise could yet ruin the détente that is just being rebuilt.

By John Rossant

With Stan Crock in Washington

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