Monday, March 14, 2005

These are our friends - part 2

There was an agreement during President Bush’s visit to Europe that the vexed question of lifting the arms embargo on China should not be raised. It was all going to be sweetness and light; there was no real need for fractious disagreements.

The subject, however, will not go away. At the moment it looks like the actual decision to lift the embargo will be taken during the British presidency, which must be one of Tony Blair’s nightmares: there he will be squirming between America and Europe. Far from building bridges, he will be in the unenviable position of deepening the chasm.

In fact, this week Lord Bach the defence procurement minister is going to Washington to try to minimize whatever impact the lifting of the arms embargo may have on American attitudes to all their European allies, including Britain.

Meanwhile, France is anxious to show America that it means well …. errm …. that it does not mean too badly … well, anyhow, that it only wants to earn large sums of money and that should not bother anybody at all … oh no, just a minute … it wants to build up a European foreign policy that will stand up to America … zut alors! What do we mean, enfin?

Last week it was the French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie went to Washington, as the International Herald Tribune put it:
“….hoping to capitalize on improving trans-Atlantic relations and win some measure of support for the European Union’s plan to lift its arms embargo against China”.
If that is really how the lady reasons (and it may be a rather silly interpretation by the journalist) then she should not be allowed out on her own, let alone given the task of negotiating with anybody.

The trans-Atlantic relations are not in a particularly bad shape. As André Glucksmann said in the article I quoted in a previous posting, there are
“… the elites in France, Germany, Spain or Belgium who brashly speak for the whole of Europe”.
The problem is with the Franco-American relations and these are not precisely improving because of small matters like the proposed lifting of the arms embargo. It is because this fact is known to all and sundry that the subject was avoided during President Bush’s visit.

Meanwhile, Mme Alliot-Marie insists that lifting the embargo will not make any difference whatsoever as it “doesn't mean at all that we are going to sell more arms to China”. We are not irresponsible, she sniffs and, no doubt, shrugs in an ineffable Gallic way.

According to last Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune:
“The embargo prohibits arms sales to China except through special export licenses. According to the European Union, French export licenses to China were valued in 2003 at €171 million, or about $228 million - the most of any member state, and up from €105 million in 2002.”
In fact, both the French and the British governments insist, the new regime with its tougher code of conduct, that will, nevertheless, continue to be voluntary and unenforceable, will provide a better control of what goes to China.

Added to which, according to Mme Alliot-Marie, increased sales of arms to China (although, of course, they will not increase) will mean that the country will not feel the need to produce its weapons. Mme Alliot-Marie was clearly brought up to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

According to the same issue of the Trib:
“… Jiang Enshu, a spokesman for the Chinese Parliament, said his country intended to increase officially declared military spending by 12.6 percent this year to $29.9 billion, or €20 billion.”
The code of conduct, if it is to work, would need complete openness about the sales of arms and France, for one, has no intention of giving out detailed and sensitive information or sharing it with 24 other EU member states. Apart from anything else, that would inevitbaly mean that the Americans would find out what was being sold exactly.

So, if the lifting of the embargo will make no difference and no more arms will be sold to China, why do it?

Ah, says Mme Alliot-Marie, it would send the right sort of positive signal to China about future EU-Chinese relations. The lady is very hot on positive signals.

Asked about possible retaliatory restrictions on selling US military technology to Europe, she becomes agitated:
“That isn’t at all reasonable, nor constructive for US-European relations. Such threats send an extremely negative signal.”
The trouble is that an extremely negative signal is exactly what the United States wants to send and not all of Lord Bach’s skills or Mme Alliot-Marie’s charms will alter the fact, that lifting the European arms embargo will, in many people’s opinion, send the wrong kind of signal to China at the moment.

Today China passed its anti-secession law, described by its Prime Minister as a method of peaceful solution but one that threatens Taiwan, quite unnecessarily, with military action if it decides to declare full independence from China or if the latter thinks that that is what happened.

This will, no doubt, be discussed in debt during Secretary of State Rice’s Asian visit, due to begin this week-end and likely to be more important in American eyes than the been-and-gone European one.

My colleague has already written on how the Taiwanese see France’s role in the conflict.

Then there is the question of human rights, supposedly a crucial part of that famous code of conduct. In fact, in their desperation to sell more arms, both France and Germany have been insisting, though a little less so recently, that the situation in that country has improved, citing some small promise of possibly reviewing sentences imposed on dissidents in courts after a couple of years as a concession.

The truth is that China still uses psychiatry on dissidents; that its forced labour gulag is the largest in the world and, as far as we know, shows no signs of becoming smaller.

There have been stories of families of those murdered in Tiananmen Square (the start of the embargo) asking for an apology from the Chinese government. They should have asked Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. These would have apologized like a shot. The Chinese government and secret police, on the other hand, have been harrassing and imprisoning the relatives.

Furthermore, the Chinese government has devised a way of controlling, though not as tightly as it would like to do so, the growing internet through what is known with grim jocularity as the Great Firewall of China.

There are now 100 million Chinese net users, not a large number relatively speaking and not widely spread across the country. But the numbers are growing. The Chinese government has put a special internet police into place.

It uses technology to filter undesired website addresses out (including Google) and monitors connections with them. Internet cafes are periodically closed down and native net service firms are closely controlled.

Of course, there are ways of getting round the problem and Western software has been smuggled into China to help its people to use the internet openly. Proxy servers and other methods are used. It seems, however, that the Chinese government has increased its aggressive methods of control, rightly fearful of what an open exchange of information might do to their power.

In other words, the situation in China is “improving” and it is necessary to send the Chinese government a positive European signal. After all, there can be no other reason for selling more arms to that country, although, of course, it would not mean selling any more arms, despite what the Taiwanese, Japanese, Americans and Australians might say. They are all wrong. The Chinese rulers are our friends.

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