Walker's World on France and China

Posted in Europe | 17-Oct-04

Pro-Taiwan independence demonstrators peeks out from between signs denouncing the lifting of the EU's ban on selling weapons to China during a protest in front of the French Trade Office, Friday, Oct. 1, 2004, in Taipei, Taiwan.
The world has just dodged a bullet. A majority of the 25 members of the European Union agreed Monday to ignore the urgings of the French and Germans and maintain the arms embargo against China. Had they not done so, the Transatlantic rows between Europe and America would have become very serious indeed.

Once again, the French were in the front line, hoping to seal a $12 billion arms deal package to deliver to China the high-tech weaponry Beijing’s forces would need if the cold war in the Taiwan Straits turned hot. But this is much more important than a simple arms deal.

French President Jacques Chirac, during his current visit to China, spoke repeatedly of “a global strategic partnership” between France and China. He sometimes broadened his rhetoric so that the partnership embraced Europe and China.

“What is certain,” he said in his press conference in Hong Kong Tuesday,” is the relations and links between the European union and China are destined to grow, and in my view, the EU is destined to become the leading customer, the leader supplier and the first partner of China.”

What Chirac did not say specifically was that a partnership between Europe and China would embody a strategic decision to “balance” the current overwhelming power of the United States. But Chirac did not have to spell it out. The French vision of “balancing” American power ran through his every speech.

“We want to build a world order of peace and prosperity in which, within the framework of the United Nations of which France and China are founding members, states freely accept that force should be subject to international rules,” he told the students of Tongji university in Shanghai. (This was a clear reference to the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq without a clear UN mandate.)

Chirac did not refer directly to the Iraq war, nor to the prospect of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, but his message was clear enough. Again from his speech at Tongji University, he spoke of France and China “ meeting the new challenges of the new century side by side…..China and France refuse any fatalism about the confrontation or the chaos that would result from the uncontrolled play of the global forces now in motion.”

One does not have to be a paranoid American neo-conservative to discern within those oblique phrases a Chiracian vision of a new world order in which China and Europe (led by France) work as a counterweight to the United States, supporting multilateralism and the UN against the unilateral “with us or against us” approach of the Bush administration.

“It is normal that a group of nations like the EU should wish to have the very closest relations with China, in such a way as to be able to build together the multipolar world which is in the process of being designed for tomorrow.” Chirac went on during an interview with China TV.

Even more directly, during his trip to Vietnam, immediately before his arrival in China, President Chirac spoke of “the necessity of combating the American approach on supporting culture, or sitting back to watch the spread of a global sub-culture across the world.”

In particular, Chirac presented himself to the Chinese as the man who wanted to end the EU arms embargo, and start putting some military hardware into the heart of his vaunted new “strategic partnership.”

“We cannot treat China as a partner while continuing to marginalize her on the military and strategic levels,” Chirac said.

Assume that Chirac had succeeded, and managed to lift the EU arms embargo, to sell French Rafale fighters and Agosta stealth submarines and advanced avionics. Assume further that China, thus equipped, took a far more aggressive attitude toward Taiwan and defied the inevitable U.S. warnings. The prospect of China fighting the Americans with European weapons would make last year’s Transatlantic rows over the Iraq war look like a minor spat. Chirac is playing with fire.

Fortunately, most of the EU members combined to keep the arms embargo in place. The Danes noted coldly that the embargo had been imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and that 14 of the students then arrested were still in prison. The British noted that the current tension over Taiwan made this a less than auspicious time to be talking about selling arms.

Even more fortunately, the Chinese seemed to give Chirac a fairly cold shoulder. Chirac, who took a large contingent of French industrialists along on his state visit, boasted during his trip of signing $6 billion in various industrial contracts. But he did not get the big ones that he had sought, for new Airbus A380 jumbo jets and for the multi-billion dollar contract to build China’s planned new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link. In fact, France rather lags in Europe’s China trade, largely because the French have so far been cautious about investing, with only $6.1 billion in investments in China, way behind Britain with over $12 billion and Germany with $10 billion.

Chirac’s host, Hu Jingtao, pointedly refused to echo Chirac’s grandiose rhetoric about “global strategic partnership” and balancing the Americans in some new multipolar world order. The Chinese also declined to talk about arms deals, at least publicly, and made it clear that they were all in favor of commercial and trade links and scientific cooperation and student exchanges, but this state visit was no time to talk about hard-nosed strategic issues.

The Chinese do not seem to be taking seriously Chirac’s fantasies about an emergent EU superpower, nor about the need for some grand global coalition to balance or counter the American hyperpower. Nor do most of the other Europeans. But Americans may ask themselves just what remains of the old alliance with France, and what kind of help from allies such as these Senator John Kerry might realistically expect should he get elected to the White House next month.