Financial Times

Paris stalls end to EU arms ban on Beijing

By Daniel Dombey in Brussels,George Parker in Paris and Mure Dickie in Beijing
Published: December 05 2004

France is resisting moves to reveal more about arms sales to China as the price of lifting the European Union's arms embargo on the country, putting Paris at odds with the rest of the EU.

President Jacques Chirac has championed lifting the ban imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre which the EU believes implies a near-pariah status China no longer deserves.

In spite of opposition from the US, many EU states want to ensure that lifting the embargo is largely symbolic by simultaneously increasing transparency on arms sales to Beijing. But Paris is resisting more openness.

The embargo is expected to be high on the agenda at the EU-China summit on Wednesday. While there is no prospect of it being lifted this week, the EU wants to signal to China that it will be removed soon perhaps in the first half of next year.

"The arms embargo is the EU's problem, not China's" said a European diplomat. "Most countries want tighter controls as a condition of lifting the embargo but France is an obstacle."

China has put the arms embargo at the top of its priorities for its relationship with Europe, even though it says it had no intention of making big arms purchases from the EU.

Beijing has also made clear that relations with EU states including trade could suffer if the ban remains in place. The embargo is primarily a political rather than a legal measure, which has not ended the trade entirely: in 2002, EU countries granted licences for 210m ($281m) of arms exports to China. France accounted for half of the total, with licences worth 105m.

Because of such loopholes, most EU states want to toughen their code of conduct on arms sales and introduce a transitional regime for China and other countries that have previously been embargoed. But France is reluctant to give more details of the export licences it grants rather than just those it rejects.

The EU also says it wants an improvement in China's human rights such as ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but is not insisting on formal linkage.

The US fiercely opposes any lifting of the embargo. Washington has been deeply sceptical that the EU could end the embargo without significantly increasing arms sales to China.

But last week a top White House official said the timing and terms of a European decision to lift the embargo were important.

"It's a question of timing, when would it occur?" he said. "And what can be done to ensure it does not result in a situation that is destabilising for the region and implicates our interests?"

The US is concerned about Chinese access to European communications equipment and a reduction in its dependence on Russian arms imports. While Congress is worried that ending the embargo would make Taiwan more vulnerable, the main fear of some US officials is that it would speed China's rise as a regional military rival to the US.

Additional reporting by Bertrand Benoit in Berlin