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EU arms embargo

EU won't drop China arms ban soon

December 08, 2004

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- The European Union and China pledged to boost relations Wednesday, but the EU said there can be no early lifting of its 15-year-old embargo on arms sales until Beijing improves its shaky human rights record.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country holds the EU presidency, said he told his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao that Europe would consider ending the ban -- imposed after the bloody 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests -- but that continuing reports of human rights abuses made that an iffy prospect.

He said the EU was also considering tightening its "code of conduct" for arms sales, which proponents see as a safety net.

The code forces EU nations to ensure the weapons they sell are not used for internal repression, external aggression or where serious violations of human rights have occurred.

Balkenende and Wen met for almost three hours after which the two sides signed more than half a dozen agreements. They covered closer cooperation in science and technology, customs and student exchanges.

They also signed a declaration committing to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

EU and Chinese officials said their meeting underscored the phenomenal growth in two-way trade that rocketed to &euro150 billion ($202.5 billion) last year, double the 1999 figure. In 1980, China ranked 25th on the EU's list of most important trade partners. This year it is the EU's second most important partner, after the United States, according to EU figures.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Balkenende, Wen acknowledged differences of human rights and the arms ban weigh on the EU-China relationship. He added, "That does not frighten us. It does not prevent us from having a bilateral relationship."

Still, Wen called the arms ban "political discrimination" and an outdated "product of the Cold War. Lifting the embargo does not mean China would start buying lots of arms from the EU."

However, China has been on a buying spree of sophisticated military hardware for its 2.5-million strong People's Liberation Army. In the past decade, it has purchased fighter jets, missiles, submarines and destroyers, mostly from Russia

The United States, wary of China's designs on Taiwan, has asked the EU not to lift its arms embargo and has threatened to halt the transfer of defense technology to Europe if the EU ban is lifted. It also opposes steps to tighten the EU's code of conduct on weapons sales.

Within the EU, Germany and France are most eager for the arms ban to be lifted. But several nations, notably Britain and Scandinavian countries, oppose that.

Human rights groups say China has a long way to go on improving its human rights record.

Amnesty International says torture and ill-treatment "remain widespread and endemic within China's criminal justice system" and has called on Balkenende to address the issue.

As Wen met with EU officials at the historic parliament complex in the heart of The Hague, police detained four protesters with the media rights group Reporters Without Borders who tried to hang a banner on a fence.

The sign read: "China: World's biggest prison for journalists."

The organization said the Chinese government blocked access to its Web site via the Google search engine last month.

On Thursday, Wen is to meet with European business leaders and visit the European Space Agency.