WASHINGTON – Lawmakers joined Bush administration officials Thursday in condemning the proposed resumption of European arms sales to China (search) and said ending the embargo could provide grounds for reconsidering the United States' security relations with Europe.
The idea of such sales "raise fundamental questions about whether defense industrial cooperation with Europe is becoming a national security liability for our country," said GOP Rep. Henry Hyde (search) of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
Hyde's panel and the House Armed Services Committee jointly heard from State, Defense and Commerce officials about the European Union's (search) plans to end the arms embargo. It was imposed by the EU and the United States after China's 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square (search) democracy movement.
The 25-nation EU had set a June deadline for lifting the embargo. But it now appears that, under U.S. pressure, that date will be moved back as EU officials work on a code of conduct to regulate arms sales.
"We do not now believe that the EU is close to a decision to lifting the embargo itself, but we realize that we must keep this issue at the forefront of our agenda with the EU," said Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state.
He said the administration has made clear its belief that "the EU's lifting of the embargo would negatively affect regional stability as well as America's security interests."
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said an EU decision to end the embargo "should cause us to reconsider our entire security relationship with Europe."
The top Democrat on that committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, said the Europeans should take into account the anti-secession law that China passed in March authorizing the use of force against Taiwan.
Lifting the embargo "would both send the wrong political signal and would potentially put American forces at risk in a future conflict," Skelton said.
President Bush, in a February visit to Europe, said the end of the embargo "would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan and that's of concern."
But the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said at an EU summit last month that it was "unfair to maintain sanctions" so many years after Tiananmen. He also said the anti-secession law had not changed the determination to end those penalties.
Hunter and other lawmakers noted that even with the embargo, there was a surge in European exports to China of defense-related materials that the EU said were not lethal.
Hunter singled out U.S. cooperation with Europe on a new Joint Strike Fighter (search). "If the technology made its way to the Chinese defense industrial base, it could create enormous problems for the American fleet," he said.
Hunter asked Peter Rodman, the Defense Department's assistant secretary for international security affairs, if there was any talk of curtailing the Joint Strike Fighter partnership.
"Curtailment is too strong a word at this stage," Rodman said. But he said U.S. officials had discussed "negative consequences" with the Europeans. "We'd have to look at the issue of our transfers to Europe."
Congress in February approved a nonbinding resolution saying European actions to end the embargo could result in constraints on U.S.-European relations. Hyde suggested there could be "additional legislative initiatives."
Some lawmakers criticized the U.S. government for its policies on the sale to China of computers and other technology that can be used both for civilian and military purposes. They also said U.S. trade policies have allowed China to build up huge surpluses of dollars, which it can use to buy arms.
"Are we the role models or are we hypocrites?" asked Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. He said Congress is "ready to pass any initiatives that we can take on the trade front to stop the imbalance of trade which is financing China's military growth."