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Why are the U.S. and the E.U. arguing about China?

You were probably too busy celebrating National Children's Dental Health Month to have noticed, but in February President Bush visited Europe. The visit's purpose was to patch up U.S.-European Union relationships damaged by the Iraq War. As Bush's speech(writers) put it, the trip was aimed at ushering in a "new era of transatlantic unity."

To achieve his goal, Bush did some heavy-duty schmoozing. He visited the E.U.'s most important political institutions in Brussels and broke bread with the continent's most powerful leaders. Bush even buddied up to his Euro-nemesis, French President Jacques Chirac. Sources say that Chirac escorted Bush on a secret, late-night visit to the place in France where the naked ladies dance. Senior administration officials confirm that Bush has been keen on visiting ever since he learned of the hole in the wall where the men can see it all.

Unfortunately, instead of coming back from Europe with stronger political ties and a bag of duty-free goodies for the twins, Bush returned with yet another U.S.-E.U. crisis.

This time, the argument is about China. We're ticked off because the E.U. is on the brink of lifting its arms embargo on China. The embargo has been in place since shortly after China's Communist leadership sent in its army in June 1989 to break up a peaceful, pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The crackdown left hundreds dead and thousands more injured and imprisoned. The crackdown also strengthened the Communist government's grip on power.

So do we have a moral objection to doing business with killer commies? No. We're China's second-largest trading partner. Hell, I'm sitting on a Chinese-made chair writing this column on a Chinese-made computer.

The hubbub isn't even about us opposing the general idea of arms sales to China. With Chinese military R&D in a slump since about the 12th century, China has been a voracious consumer of Western military hardware for years. Our closest European allies, the British, have helped China build missiles that can destroy U.S. satellites. The Brits also have given China the technology it needs to domestically manufacture world-class fighter jet engines. German, French, Israeli and Russian firms provide the Chinese navy and air force with its most up-to-date equipment.

And then there's this little North American country called the United States of America. Maybe you've heard of it. Well, this U.S.A. place sells more than twice as much military hardware to China than Europe does. Even scarier than weapons, the U.S. just coughed up $5 billion in loan guarantees with which China will buy several U.S.-designed nuclear power plants. Never mind that China has a habit of handing technology from its nuclear power plants to Pakistan, which in turn sells its nuclear know-how to Iran and North Korea. Who cares about nuclear proliferation? Apparently, not us.

Our concern about European arms sales is very specific. We're afraid that if and when the E.U. embargo is lifted, European firms will start selling China state-of-the-art battlefield communications equipment that might be used during a military offensive against Taiwan. China lags way behind the U.S. in the area of computerized command and control. The more the Chinese military can narrow that technological gap, the more damage it can do to us if we decide to help Taiwan beat back a Chinese attack.

Several congressional leaders are threatening to cut off U.S. arms sales to Europe if the embargo is lifted. I doubt that would happen, though. There's no way in heck that U.S. arms makers are gonna let the members of Congress they own force the arms industry to give up its lucrative European market. In the end, the E.U. will probably lift the embargo and try to appease us with a half-hearted promise not to sell their highest-tech computers to China. In response, we'll bitch, moan, and continue to sell more weapons to China than the E.U. does.

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