WASHINGTON — A quiet, yearlong diplomatic effort by the Bush administration to stop America's European allies from lifting a long-standing arms embargo against China is threatening to erupt into a very public transatlantic row, U.S. officials and outside experts say.
Although President Bush's just-completed fence-mending visit to Europe appeared, at least temporarily, to lower tensions between the administration and its oldest allies on several fronts, including Iraq and Iran, it exposed the depth of transatlantic differences over selling military equipment to China.
Despite U.S. objections, the European Union's 25 member states are widely expected to lift the 16-year-old embargo, possibly during the first half of this year. Public comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this month led some observers to believe that the Bush administration would acquiesce to that step to win European backing for the president's Middle East agenda.
But after meetings with European leaders and senior EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday, the president gave no ground on the issue, instead noting America's "deep concern" and offering his European partners little more than a hard time from an angry U.S. Congress if they dropped the embargo without first alleviating American concerns.
Bush's response was in sharp contrast to the softer language and more conciliatory tone used in addressing other divisive subjects during the trip.
"I would not say that the two sides are close to a compromise," a senior administration official said in the wake of Bush's meetings in Brussels. "We're at an early stage of an intensive phase of discussions" with the Europeans.
European diplomats said Bush's words had refocused European efforts to address American concerns, but gave no hint that the EU would pull back from the decision to lift the embargo. Experts on the issue questioned how the ban could be lifted without sparking serious new transatlantic tensions.
"It's difficult to see how Europe and the United States can find common ground," said Adam Ward, an East Asia security specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Although overshadowed during the run-up to Bush's trip by more pressing differences on Middle East policy, the stakes involved in strengthening China's military are potentially enormous. With Beijing increasingly determined to bring Taiwan under its control and the U.S. committed to defending the island democracy just 100 miles from the mainland, there is a possibility of armed conflict, although not imminent, specialists said.
"If you look where the United States could come into conflict with a genuine nuclear power, the only place is in the Taiwan Strait," said David M. Lampton, director of Chinese studies at the Nixon Center, a Washington-based think tank. "You can imagine what the [political] impact would be if technology that originated in the United States and sold by the Europeans to China was used to kill American troops."
In Senate testimony this month, both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and CIA Director Porter J. Goss expressed concern about the dramatic growth of China's military capability.
"Beijing's military modernization and military buildup is tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait," Goss said.
Such assessments have only heightened the political concern on Capitol Hill about Europe's intentions.
This month, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution rejecting Europe's decision. Lawmakers across the political spectrum, including a leading backer of strong transatlantic ties, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), are cosponsoring a similar move in the Senate.
Both House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) used uncharacteristically harsh language last week to criticize EU plans to lift the embargo. Hyde, writing in the Wall Street Journal, dismissed European proposals to replace the embargo with a nonbinding Code of Conduct governing sales to China as an attempt to mask its action. Hyde said it had "all the vitality of mortuary cosmetics and an equivalent purpose."
"It's very troubling," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a leading congressional advocate of expanding commercial ties to China. "I'm strongly opposed to lifting the embargo."
Lugar indicated last week that he would back restricting U.S. technology transfers to European allies unless the European Union could guarantee that such technology would not be passed to China.
The United States and its major European allies slapped the embargo on Beijing in the wake of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, arguing they should not supply armies that shoot their own people. As on many issues, however, transatlantic interests in regard to Chinese arms have diverged in the post-Cold War era.