Financial Times

US rejects Straw's attempt to ease tension over China arms embargo

By Stephen Fidler in London and Daniel Dombey in Brussels
Published: January 20 2005

Efforts by Jack Straw, foreign secretary, to play down transatlantic tensions over European Union plans to lift an arms embargo on China were called into question yesterday as a senior US official rejected his suggestion that Washington misunderstood the proposal.

The official said the EU was underestimating the strength of feeling in Washington over arms sales to Beijing. "A failure to understand the significance of this issue is going to result in major problems for transatlantic arms procurement," he warned.

Washington's concerns, felt most strongly in the defence department and among conservatives in Congress, are that increased European arms sales could help China in a possible future confrontation with the US over Taiwan.

European officials hope that Washington's opposition will be softened by changes within the new Bush administration, including the imminent departure of hawk John Bolton as US undersecretary of state for arms control.

The US official responded vigorously to the suggestion by Mr Straw in a Financial Times interview, that lifting the embargo was largely a "presentational problem" with Washington. Mr Straw told a UK parliamentary committee last week that many US objections were based on a "lack of information and understanding" about the controls that would replace the embargo.

"We understand exactly how the various EU policies work and Straw repeatedly saying we don't understand is not helpful," the US official said. The embargo will be replaced by a strengthened code of conduct applying to all EU arms exports along with other special measures. The US official condemned the replacement regime as vague, saying it did not take into account the effect that sales of arms would have on the strategic position in the Taiwan Strait.

"The code of conduct [and the additional measures] do not address our strategic concerns. There is not a thing in there that deals with the supply of command and control equipment - the sort of things we are worried about," the official said. "The EU approach as reflected by France and by Straw does not bring with it a strategic analysis."

The official said it would be a mistake to move ahead with a decision on the embargo before President George W. Bush's trip to Europe next month.

Mr Straw said the replacement regime would be "stronger than the embargo because it has . . . force of law and we are going to strengthen it by ensuring that there is transparency among EU partners not just on denials but also approvals".

But European diplomats said the internal EU debate had not resolved the question of whether lifting the embargo should make it easier to sell arms to Beijing or would be a largely symbolic step.