A Brussels-Beijing Axis: Strange Bedfellows?

By Adam Weissmann

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, political scientists the world over began analyzing the new global situation. Many declared that American hegemony had been achieved and that it would last. Others warned against the potential of a new bipolar rival in China. There has been much talk in the past decade about the impact of worldwide economics and globalization as a force for international cooperation as well. From Fukuyama’s “end of history” to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” political science as a field has thrived.

In the September 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, published just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a distinguished political scientist outlined his prediction for the future a leading article, which said the United States will withdraw its forces from Europe and Asia, thus permitting the rearmament and resurgence of Germany and Japan. That political scientist was John Mearsheimer. In “The Future of the American Pacifier,” Mearsheimer got it dead wrong. In 2005, the United States are continuing to commit hundreds of thousands of troops in Central Asia and the Middle East, while Europe, Japan, and South Korea still house American bases and host thousands of troops.

While the United States continues to be the global hegemon, there are inevitably efforts to balance against it. China requires a couple of decades to become a bipolar balancer, and the European Union (which I have previously described as an aspirant superpower) lags far behind the United States in military strength. It seems, though, that the Europeans and Chinese have found themselves drawing closer either purposely or unwittingly to balance against America together.

In recent weeks, diplomats in Brussels have been urging an end to the embargo against the sale of arms to China, which has been in place since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. China, they argue, has huge market potential for the European defense industry, as many of its military systems are outdated and in need of upgrade or repair. Europe is looking to open its arms to new markets. As the European Union’s economic growth continues, manufacturers are looking eastward to South and East Asia to sell their products. The Chinese are more than eager to purchase European goods and services. Not only will it increase their economic and military capabilities, but it will grant the Communist regime increased international legitimacy. A Jewish grandmother could not have made a better match. Europe, the economic powerhouse, and China, the next great military power, complement each other perfectly.

Well, not quite perfectly. Europe prides itself on being a global center of progressive values and liberalism, where humanitarian concerns and human rights are a foundation of both regional and local governance. China, on the other hand, is not free. The iron fist of single-party rule is only gradually relaxing and the Chinese people are still restricted from many of the basic freedoms that Europeans take for granted. For Brussels to ally with Beijing would be a grave mistake and a great disservice to those dissidents who have been punished for promoting democracy and human rights.

Natan Sharansky, in his book The Case for Democracy, reflects on his own experience as a political prisoner in a Communist state, and he explains that the only way to help democratize such a regime is to attach humanitarian conditions when negotiating international deals. If the European Union wants to sell arms to China, it should do so only if Beijing agrees to loosen its grip on political dissidents and ethnic minorities. Europe should never allow successful integration to turn its thirst for economic success into ambivalence to liberal values.

Just like the “perestroika” that followed American negotiations with the Soviet Union, in which the United States pushed for more transparency and democracy under that regime, there is a chance that similar reform can be stimulated in China. European leaders must show resolve, however, and remain firmly committed to democracy and freedom.

Those pulling the strings in Brussels should realize that the economic gain from arms sales now may not be as great as the economic and political gain from a democratized China later. Europe should lift its embargo, but only if China agrees to internal reforms. The arms ban, which was enacted following the bloody crackdown against dissidents in 1989, just might be the key to encouraging a successful pro-democracy movement in years to come.