Maintain ban on arms to China

The arms embargo against China is a valu-able carrot worth preserving for the present.

Mending fences with European allies was bound to be easier said than done. As President George W. Bush traveled to Europe last week on a new round of diplomacy talks, the prospect of renewed disagreement between the United States and the European Union was already visible.

Nowhere was this clearer than Europe’s emerging push to lift its embargo on arms sales to China. That embargo, along with a similar one by the United States, was imposed in 1989 after Chinese authorities cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

Europe’s bid to end the embargo appears aimed at forging closer economic ties with China. Lifting the ban would undoubtedly please Chinese officials and put the European Union in a prime position to trade with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

The Bush administration has wisely noted that lifting the embargo could upset the fragile balance of power between China and Taiwan. Though they might not admit as much, U.S. officials surely also fear the transfer of sophisticated technology to a country intent on strengthening its military and asserting its regional muscle.

This subtle jostling for advantage – Europe for an economic edge, the United States for a military one – should not take the place of a genuine discussion over the value of maintaining the embargo. Starting that debate means reminding U.S. and E.U. officials that the embargo was originally intended to punish China for an abysmal human rights record. The economic benefits of lifting the ban and the geopolitical benefits of preserving it should take a back seat to those human rights concerns.

The Bush administration must know that an indefinite arms embargo on a member of the U.N. Security Council with a population more than 1 billion and a galloping economy is not realistic. Likewise, E.U. officials should see the current embargo for what it is: a valuable carrot that gives the world additional leverage over a nation with a penchant for jailing political dissidents and stifling religious expression.

Forfeiting that carrot without something in return would be a setback for human rights in China.