Saturday, February 05, 2005

Ducking the issues

Commemorating the visit of US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to London, three out of four of the "quality" papers today offer leaders which pick up on Iran and the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China

The Independent (subscription only), for instance, in a leader that asks: "Will Britain be caught in the middle once again?", focuses on Iraq, but also notes that, looming on the horizon are differences that could prove no less divisive than Iraq. Iran's nuclear ambition is one; another is the EU's determination to lift its arms embargo on China.

This newspaper also correctly notes that, on both these issues, Blair has lined up with Europe but it then goes on to suggest that the danger is that, once again, it will be Britain's fate to be caught in the middle.

The Times, on the other hand, with its leader headed: "Behind the smiles" actually offers the strap: "The EU, the US, Iran and the arms embargo on China".

It dismisses any idea that the US is about to launch a war against Iran – which in fact has never been suggested by the US – and considers it unfair to pretend that it is not in dialogue with EU political leaders. Then it moves to the China situation, archly noting that: "a number of large EU nations, notably France, have identified a lucrative export market for their weapons."

It is entirely possible, says The Times,

...that removing the arms embargo would have limited consequences. The issue is, nevertheless, viewed differently in Washington, not only by the Administration but Congress and not just by conservative Republicans but also liberal Democrats. The probably slim chance that US troops defending Taiwan might be attacked by an army which had acquired its arms from the EU fills policymakers in America with horror. It would be sensible for Europe, led by Britain, to recognise this fear and avoid a course which the US considers a threat to its security. If not, then Dr Rice's tours of Europe will be become rarer and less friendly.
Then we come to The Daily Telegraph, which sees Condoleezza Rice bringing morality to realpolitik, arguing that having spent 10 years trying to talk the mullahs out of their nuclear ambitions, the Europeans are belatedly coming round to the US case for a tougher line against Teheran. Then it too notes that: "A major row looms... over China," stating:

The EU's desire to lift its arms embargo on Beijing is not simply of symbolic importance. China wants weapons in order to use them. Almost every contiguous state has, at one time or another, felt the force of Chinese expansionism: Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, India and Vietnam.

The current target of its aggression, Taiwan, is defended by US warships, and Washington is understandably furious at the prospect of its sailors facing weapons made in Europe. Yet, even here, it is possible that at least some Europeans will be won round by Miss Rice's moral case. China, after all, still has a totalitarian regime. The idealistic activists who marched in European cities against Tiananmen and the despoliation of Tibet may yet find themselves carrying the Stars and Stripes.
So what are we to make of all this? Given the underlying sympathies of the Independent for "the project", one must assume that this newspaper wants Blair to stand firm alongside the "Europeans". The Times, though, suggests that the fair Condoleezza will be wielding a handbag of Thatcherite proportions if it does, and The Telegraph suggests that those self-same Europeans may come round to the American way of thinking.

Small wonder that, if three of the country’s leading newspapers are offering totally different "takes" on this complex situation, the British public remains confused – and so often disinterested. But it would be nice if all three addressed the reality of the China situation. And there are three issues which need to be considered.

Firstly, EU foreign policy on China is being driven by France, with the support of German, which are pursuing their own commercial interests – i.e., weapons sales - heedless of the protests of the United States which has genuine strategic interests on containing Chinese arms technology.

Secondly, the Labour government, having originally resisted the call to lift the embargo, now supports France and Germany, mainly – we are told – for domestic political reasons, as means of demonstrating to its anti-war left that Blair is not Bush’s poodle.

Finally – barring a miracle - whatever the US says, the EU is not going to be diverted from its paths, and is going to desist in its plans to lift the embargo.

The questions, therefore, that these newspapers should be addressing – as should we all – is whether Blair is going to continue down the EU road of supporting the lifting of the embargo and, if he does, how is he going to handle the inevitable backlash from the US? As it stands, however, they seem to be ducking the issues.