November 30, 2003

The EU’s China syndrome

By: Matthew Hisrich

With the successful return to Earth of its first “taikonaut,” all the world’s eyes seem to be on China. Called the “sleeping giant” in many circles, China has long been expected to rise up, unleashing an economic power that could one day overtake the United States. The attention centered on the recent launch and upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing suggest that the nation has finally “arrived.” Many, including some within the European Union, appear ready to embrace this idea. But is there really any cause for concern?

China’s recent successes bring to mind the little (or more appropriately, big) engine that could. We all knew that China had the resources to become a superpower; it was simply that no one knew when it would actually happen. This has led to a collective sense of “underdog victory”–China is an example of a developing nation that just might make it.

How China’s emergence on the world scene will play out in terms of geopolitical relations remains unclear, but it is important to take note of certain trends. In 2001, The Center for Applied Research in Munich, Germany, held a conference on the future of EU-China-US relations. In the discussion, one of the main impediments to better Sino-American relations was thought to be China’s dual interests in expanding its sphere of influence and creating a balance of power. As U.S. foreign policy within the region often runs counter to either of these concerns, the point was made that if China sees U.S. efforts in Asia as competition, such undertakings might propel China to view the EU as a potential partner.

This is a prediction that is quickly becoming true. China’s People’s Daily newspaper recently covered the release of a new state-issued report entitled, “China’s EU Policy Paper.” According to the story, policy objectives explained in the paper include a “steady development of China-EU political relations.” The policy paper was quoted as stating “China-EU relations now are better that any time in history.”

The EU has not been cool to such wooing. In fact, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie declared in July that France would work within the EU to lift military technology restrictions to China. In the wake of the controversy over Iraq, it is perhaps not surprising that certain EU nations will view all of the talk of “power balancing” in a more positive light.

What always has stood–and continues to stand–in the way of significantly improved relations between the U.S. and China is that China, despite political and economic reforms, remains a communist nation with a long history of human rights violations. In light of the war on terror, China’s willingness to engage in arms trading with nations like Libya, Iran and Iraq is not likely to help. China’s recent success in space has also been called into question, as recent intelligence suggests that spy satellites and other potentially military-related devices were launched along with the taikonaut.

What is most troubling is the possibility of naïveté, or even possibly blind defiance, that nations such as France seem willing to engage in. China may be willing to play the part of friendly neighbor to the EU in exchange for arms technology, but there seems little guarantee that China will remain friendly post-exchange. If China does indeed become the economic and political communist powerhouse they are expected to, the sharing of advanced weaponry may backfire on those who desire a way to get back at the U.S. for “unilateral” intervention in Iraq.

Only time will tell if the sleeping giant truly awakens. The nations of the world, however, need to weigh the consequences of a rising giant bearing a cache of the most advanced weaponry available. While fostering good international relations is a noble goal, perhaps the U.S. and the EU should be more wary of a partnership between Europe and China that includes such technology trades.

Matthew Hisrich is a policy analyst with a free-market think tank, The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus, Ohio.