A few days in Washington are a few days in a rather confusing debate on where China is heading and how we should react to its ambitions.
The debate has been triggered by the intention of the European Union to abolish the arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen massacres in 1989.
The embargo is today primarily political in nature. Some military and dual-use equipment continuous to be sold in limited quantities by European countries and the intention is to replace it with a control regime that ensures that nothing substantially more will be done.
The modernization of the Chinese armed forces today is – in terms of imports – done with a combination of advanced Russian platforms – fighters, submarines, surface combatants – and advanced Israeli electronics, although some of the most sophisticated sales have been blocked by the US.
But there is, in spite of this, great disquiet in Washington over the European intentions. It is seen as a bad signal to Beijing at a time when the Communist regime there is adopting a more belligerent rhetoric against Taiwan. And on the horizon there is the fear that at some point in time the United States might find itself in a military confrontation with a rising China.
At worst, Europeans are portrayed in this debate as irresponsible merchant types. At best, they are seen as naïve and ignorant of strategic realities in a part of the world distant from their immediate interests. There are kernels of truth in both these descriptions.
But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of the US debate on the subject is driven by an interpretation of China with little foundation in either history or present. There is simply very little reason to expect that China is intending to develop into an aggressive military power seeking the domination of areas well beyond its present borders. The modernization of its armed forces could well be described as long overdue – the mass peasant army of Mao has no relevance in the modern world.
The issue of Taiwan isn’t easy. Both the US and Europe must be firm in supporting the democracy of Taiwan and opposing any armed threats against it, while at the same time recognizing that Taiwan belongs to China. The coming together of Taiwan with the rest of China must be a voluntary, gradual and peaceful process.
For the time being, it’s difficult to see that China is developing military forces that could seriously threaten to invade Taiwan or even cut it off from links with the outside world.
The threat that is there is in the form of hundreds of ballistic missiles stationed opposite Taiwan and with the capability to wreak havoc on the island. But these have been developed and produced with indigenous Chinese capabilities.
It is certainly worth taking note of the new China debate emerging in Washington. It's potential for causing new friction across the Atlantic should not be neglected, but more important is to use it to initiate a deeper strategic dialogue on the issues connected with the rise of China.
Europe needs to widen its strategic horizons.