It won't be Iraq, or Iran, or even the Middle East. It won't even be the broader issue of unilateralism versus multilateralism. The next crunch point in relations between the EU and the United States is going to be China.
So says Richard Bernstein, the veteran journalist who served as Time magazine's first Beijing bureau chief, writing in the International Herald Tribune today.
And, as long as EU is seeking to recruit China as a "strategic partner," ignoring growing Chinese-American rivalry, the outcome does not look good.
Bernstein selects two events from the past few days to illustrate the European-American divide on this question.
The first, he says, was the decision of China's government to make a non-event of the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former party chief and prime minister, who fell out of favour in 1989 when he opposed the use of military force to quell the student-led democracy protests of that year, and remained under house arrest until his death this week.
His second was a recent decision by the United States to penalise eight Chinese companies, including some of the country's biggest military contractors, for supplying missile technology to Iran.
According to Bernstein, the relegation of Zhao to non-personhood shows that China is still very much a Communist dictatorship, a factor which tends to have considerably more weight in US policy-making on China than it has in Europe.
As to arms transfers to Iran, this related to the biggest area of trans-Atlantic disagreement, the avowed intention of EU member states (or most of them) to lift the arms embargo on China.
European diplomats claim that any lifting of the arms embargo would not be followed by actual arms sales to China, but what Bernstein picks up is a series of revealing comments made by Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
Gallach refers to China’s participation in Galileo, the EU's proposed rival to the US GPS system, "This does not match with an arms embargo," Gallach says. "There is a total incongruity, and the Chinese in particular are keen to remove this incongruity."
Read into that what you will but the most obvious inference is that there is no point in making available a satellite guidance system to the Chinese if you then do not allow her to purchase the weapons which can exploit the sophisticated guidance afforded by that system
Bernstein poses the question: Could that lead to conflict with the United States, the country that would face China militarily if it ever came to war with Taiwan?
"We look at the Chinese as a strategic partner," Gallach says. "Some Americans might have the temptation to look at China as a strategic competitor in the long term, so we have to start by analysing the situation in a sober manner, and to try to work together with the Americans."
The next source Bernstein enlists is David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University. Writing in a recent issue of Current History, he observes that China and the EU constitute "an emerging axis in world affairs," one of whose common points is "a convergence of views about the United States, its foreign policy and its global behaviour."
In Bernstein's words, China and the EU agree that the United States has to be constrained. "Strategic partners indeed", he adds. Spelt out more plainly, the EU is chosing to be more closely aligned to China – against the United States.
In all this, Bernstein sees a paradox. Countries that are not superpowers and have no global strategic interests find it easier to act without constraints than does the sole superpower. Whereas the superpower has to bear the consequences of its actions, middle-size powers do not.
Thus, says Bernstein, it is easier in this sense for Europe than the United States to relinquish its human rights rhetoric when it conflicts with other interests, such as economic advantage. He continues:
China can sell missile technology to Iran in part because it has no strategic interests in the Middle East - only the narrow national interest of ensuring oil supplies. And Europe can lift its arms embargo against China because the EU, however it might want to play a big role in a multipolar world, has no strategic interests in Asia - only the narrow interest of benefiting from the China trade.That really sums it us. The EU – or its member states - can enjoy a glorious sense of irresponsibility, acting in their own interests, without having to clean up the mess. But this is only in the short term.
So, for example, Europe has essentially eliminated Taiwan - a territory bigger than more than half of the EU member states - from its frame of reference. It won't be Europe's concern if a democratic Taiwan is forced, under Chinese diplomatic and military pressure, to give up its de facto independence.
There is also no sense of shared responsibility for the fate of a small island under pressure from a giant and ever more powerful neighbor. The Europeans know and can count on the fact that whatever the consequences of its decision on arms to China, the responsibility to deal with them will be America's alone.
Already, it has been made clear to Jack Straw that, as far as the Americans are concerned, lifting the arms embargo is more than a presentational problem.
Yesterday he was in Japan where he met foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura. He told Straw, unequivocally, that Japan was opposed to the lifting of the embargo. "It is extremely worrying as this issue concerns peace and security environments not only in Japan but also in East Asia as a whole," he later told a joint news conference, adding that the issue was of great concern to the United States.
Therein lie the consequences. The EU member states – and the UK with them – can play fast and loose with American sensitivities, but they cannot expect the US not to react. And an emboldened Bush, in his second term in the White House, will not be in a forgiving mood.