Monday, January 17, 2011

Smart Diplomacy: "a new low point in U.S.-EU relations” may result from Obama's "all is hunky-dory with Washington" 'tude towards arms sales to China

Smart diplomacy: a former U.S. ambassador to NATO is apprehensive of "a new low point in U.S.-E.U. relations.”
How’s this for an unsettling (but still imaginary) news item: “The European Union has announced a plan that will allow member countries to offer sales or technical cooperation to China in the defense sector, involving combat planes, transport aircraft and satellites. This will strengthen Beijing’s potential for force projection from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the coasts of Africa.”
That is the question raised by John Vinocur in the International Herald Tribune. When Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac entertained the idea of resuming weapons sales to China in the mid-2000s, the Bush administration seems to have quickly put an end to the plan. What can we expect from today's occupant of the Oval Office, aka America's (ineffective) Apologizer-in-Chief who ignores all enemies (except for the internal kind, i.e., those dastardly Republican reactionaries and their distasteful Tea Party allies) and who does "not help quash the expectation that [EU schemes of this kind are] hunky-dory with Washington"?
Right now, that [imaginary news item] isn’t happening and might not. Still, the E.U.’s attitude on its 20-year-old embargo on supplying China with military wherewithal looks wobbly.

The United States has noted interest in the E.U. in lifting or modifying the ban, and while it does not consider it a fatality, is watchful and concerned, according to a U.S. official.

…The nub of the matter is a policy paper put forward last month by Catherine Ashton, the E.U. foreign policy chief, that asserts, “The current arms embargo is a major impediment for developing stronger E.U.-China cooperation on foreign policy and security measures. The E.U. should discuss its practical implication and design a way forward.”

…Ms. Ashton [aka the anti-war leftist who helped lead Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] added an additional rationale for lifting the ban that makes Soft Power Europe, after a couple of decades preaching against a hard power approach to the world’s problems, look like a convert to the diplomatic primacy of weapons peddling to nondemocracies. Noting that Europe was no longer the United States’ main strategic preoccupation, she said, “The U.S. has argued the need for an increased engagement in Asia, and there is a risk it will see the E.U. as a less relevant partner given our relative strategic weakness there.”

Oh, yeah. That’s a concern keeping America up at night. I talked to a European defense expert who zipped around Ms. Ashton’s formulation.

Instead, the expert, who asked for anonymity, described the driving forces for lifting the embargo as a “moribund European defense sector,” a market in China for European avionics, missiles, combat planes, transport aircraft and satellites, and expanded Chinese espionage operations that attempt to procure European defense technology one way or another.

Add to this list, he said, the perception that the Obama administration, in the context of its “reset” policy with Russia, did not make much of a fuss about France’s now finalized sale of Mistral-class helicopter-carrying assault vessels to the Russian Navy. (According to WikiLeaks, American outrage expressed to the French about the deal stopped at calling it “a mixed message” for the allies and Russia.)

These days, with President Hu Jintao due in Washington for a state visit on Jan. 19, the reset/arms sales connection cannot be far from some European minds. Le Figaro, the newspaper most carefully reflecting France’s desires — Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly called on the E.U. to abandon its embargo via a required unanimous vote of its members — has reported this could happen quickly. An explanation: it describes the United States as “losing its grip” on the previously nay-saying British and Dutch.

There are some big ironies here for the Obama administration. … President Barack Obama … wrote the speaker of the House on Oct. 26 that it was “in the national interest” to lift restrictions on the export to China of six Hercules C-130 cargo planes “to be used in oil spill response operations at sea.” (The aircraft in a standard version is the world’s pre-eminent troop transport.)

It would have been asking a lot of the Europeans to ignore this as a signal to them, or an American blandishment to the Chinese — which, indeed, came before Ms. Ashton’s pro-arms sales remarks. Match cynicism for cynicism here, and you come out with something like a U.S.-E.U. standoff.

…Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now managing director at Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, [said]: “If all this were to play out — that is, lifting the embargo, subsequent sanctions, etc. — it would be a new low point in U.S.-E.U. relations.”

Related: Obama is learning the price a president pays when lofty rhetoric meets hard reality