Financial Times

US condemns EU plan to lift arms embargo on China

By Daniel Dombey in Brussels and Demetri Sevastopulo in,Washington
Published: February 03 2005

The US House of Representatives yesterday voted 411-3 to pass a resolution condemning the European Union's movement towards lifting its arms embargo on China.

The resolution, which has symbolic rather than legislative impact, comes as the EU is adding the final touches to controversial plans to replace the embargo with what it says is a more transparent export system.

However, the US insists the steps will not be enough. The issue is set to feature on the agenda of Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, when she travels to Europe this week. Washington alleges that lifting the embargo could destabilise the Taiwan Strait and put the US Seventh Fleet at risk.

"It is in this context that the EU's current deliberations on lifting its arms embargo on China are so outrageous," Tom Lantos, a Democrat House member, said yesterday.

The EU says ending the embargo, which has limited practical effect, is a symbolic move in keeping with the growing partnership between Europe and China.

European politicians such as Jack Straw, UK foreign secretary, add that a strengthened EU code of conduct on global arms sales could address US concerns.

Ms Rice sounded a conciliatory note on the embargo, in a pre-trip interview with news agencies. "We need to continue to discuss it . . . and to understand European motivations for wanting to go down this road," she said.

But the revised code of conduct, which includes new rules on arms brokering and the transfer of software, was virtually agreed last year.

The only reason it was not formally approved was that the UK wanted to wait until a transitional post-embargo export regime for China was agreed. This too is almost ready, although the EU will avoid any formal announcement until after President George W. Bush visits Brussels on February 21-22.

The embargo is likely to be lifted in May or June, although the EU is also waiting for a gesture on human rights by Beijing.

"We understand where Europe is going and we disagree with that direction," said a US official. "China is a player but we don't think we have to make sacrifices on values."

The code of conduct is not legally binding, while the embargo, which was put in place by the EU in 1989, is interpreted differently by the EU's 25 member states.

For example, Germany says it sells no weapons to China, while in 2003, the last year for which EU-wide data exist, France granted 2m ($2.6m) in licences to export bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles to China and 45m in licences for sales of military aircraft.

The transitional scheme the EU is close to agreeing would increase transparency about arm sales to countries when an embargo is lifted.

France had objected to increased disclosures about export licences, but now accepts this as a price of lifting the embargo. The transitional regime would also apply to Libya, which was the subject of an embargo until last year, and would be in force for five to 10 years.

The EU and US are considering beginning a process of confidential consultations, involving a "what bothers you" list of proscribed weapons and technologies. Some EU officials add that the US is most interested in restricting technology transfers, which the arms embargo was never able to control.

EU licences for arms exports to the Chinese mainland increased from 54.4m in 2001 to 416m in 2003, despite the argument that increased transparency would rein in arms sales.