Financial Times

France spells out arms sales controls

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Published: March 11 2005

Michèle Alliot-Marie, the French defence minister, yesterday attempted to reassure the US that France would retain strict controls on arms sales to China if the European Union lifts its arms sales embargo.

The EU is considering lifting the embargo later this year despite strong opposition from the Bush administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The EU plans to replace the embargo, which was imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, with a code of conduct which would be enforced by individual countries.

Senior US officials doubt the code of conduct will prevent China from obtaining sensitive military technologies when its military is already experiencing rapid growth. But Ms Alliot-Marie tried to play down those concerns, saying France would retain strict controls even if the embargo is lifted.

"As far as France and these sales of weapons is concerned you must know that France has the strictest, most stringent rules applying to the sales of weapons of the European Union, and probably in the world," Ms Alliot-Marie said at a joint press conference with Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary. "France shall continue to maintain these very stringent rules regarding the sale of weapons."

The Bush administration has expressed little public concern about China since the September 11 2001 attacks. But in recent weeks, several senior officials have warned about the rapid growth in size and capability of the Chinese military. The Pentagon is particularly concerned about the Chinese navy, which according to one intelligence estimate is expected to surpass the US fleet in 10 years.

Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese foreign minister, recently tried to play down concerns about European arms sales, saying China does not have the resources to buy "expensive and useless" weapons.

But China last week announced it was boosting its 2005 military budget by 13 per cent, its largest increase in three years.

Ms Alliot-Marie's comments are not expected to reassure many members of Congress who have said the US might take retaliatory measures against the EU if the embargo is lifted.

One senior US official said the administration was also concerned that lifting the embargo would encourage Russia to sell military technology to China that is has previously withheld because of concerns about how the US might react.