Arming China

January 29, 2004

FORTY YEARS ago this week, France - overlooking the mounting horrors of Maoism - became the first Western power to open diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

True to that form, during a state visit ending today, the French fell over themselves to court Chinese President Hu Jintao - by declaring 2004 the "Year of China," decking the Eiffel Tower in red lights for Mr. Hu's four-day visit, dispatching none other than President Jacques Chirac to meet his plane and allowing the Chinese leader the rare honor of addressing France's parliament.

Would that French pandering to Beijing stopped there. Along with Germany, Paris is dangerously turning a blind eye to continuing Chinese human rights abuses by strongly lobbying the European Union to end its ban on arms sales to China.

That ban was enacted in the wake of the attack by Chinese soldiers that killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989. It prevents China from accelerating its already rapid military buildup by acquiring Mirage jets from France and stealth-like submarines from the Germans.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin declared this week that the arms-sale embargo "is out of date as relations between Europe and China improve." These days, EU-Chinese ties are improving, as are Sino-U.S. relations, but it's clear that the drive to resume arms sales is a deep French kowtow to the rising power of the world's fastest-growing economy. A number of big Chinese-French business deals were announced yesterday.

Giving China greater access to high-tech arms is a potentially destabilizing move for the rest of Asia. It's particularly hazardous for Taiwan and should be a grave concern for the United States, which as recently as 1996 had to send two aircraft carrier groups to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait after China fired missiles near the island, the largest U.S. naval movement in Asia since the Vietnam War.

China, which mainly has been buying Russian arms, shouldn't receive Western help militarizing. For more than a decade, Beijing has been funneling its growing wealth into rapid modernization of its forces. It more recently has been aiming to close the vast U.S. lead in space and information warfare, as displayed by America in Iraq. China already has hundreds of missiles trained on Taiwan and within a few years is likely to finally attain the ability to launch a credible invasion of the island.

Last but not least, China may be presenting a somewhat softer image to the world these days - with low-level elections and a developing judiciary - but the hard realities of Beijing's repression persist for any who dare to publicly challenge the regime. The Chinese gulag is alive and well for those guilty of having dissenting political or religious views.

The French desire to peddle China advanced arms is hard to justify - particularly for a nation whose own history has been so critical to the creation of political systems based on inalienable human rights.

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