Financial Times

EU support ebbs for ending China arms ban

By Guy Dinmore and James Harding in Washington
Published: March 21 2005

The UK is seeking diplomatic backing to postpone the European Union's decision to lift its arms embargo against China, as European support for the move erodes in the face of growing opposition from the Bush administration and threats of retaliation from the US Congress.

Diplomats said the UK was sounding out other governments in support of a postponement, possibly until 2006.

France, which has lobbied hardest to lift the embargo, is resisting. But other EU members, particularly those with close defence ties to the US, are leaning towards a delay beyond the previously agreed timetable of the first half of this year.

Jack Straw, UK foreign secretary, last week sought support for a postponement from Gianfranco Fini, his Italian counterpart, a diplomat said. The UK has also had talks with Scandinavian EU members, a UK official said.

China's adoption last week of an anti-secession law intended to thwart any moves by Taiwan towards independence had “created quite a difficult political environment”, Mr Straw told British TV at the weekend.

This shift in emphasis was reinforced yesterday in Washington by Bill Rammell, a visiting UK minister, who said it was not right to say the UK was “enthusiastic” about lifting the ban. “We have certainly not been leading the pack on this,” he said. “This will take as long as it will take.”

The EU imposed the embargo on China in 1989 after the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators. However, EU member states approved licences to sell military equipment worth over €400m ($531m) in 2003, nearly double the amount in 2002. “Right now, the EU position has not changed,” said a spokeswoman for Javier Solana, EU foreign policy representative. “But this issue is now more difficult and more complex, both in substance and as regards the timeline.”

British officials have signalled increasing reluctance to advance the process, because of China's slow progress on human rights and the new law on Taiwan. Some European governments no longer wish to jeopardise the recent thaw in transatlantic relations over the embargo.

Members of the US Congress warned they would respond to a lifting of the embargo by passing legislation restricting US technology transfers to European defence companies. A high-level EU delegation failed last week to convince US officials and members of Congress that the non-mandatory embargo would be replaced by tighter EU controls.

But France continues to back lifting the embargo in the first half of the year and believes the case for the “symbolic” move remains strong. And Germany has yet to soften its position in favour of lifting the embargo.

Given the commercial opportunities presented by China EU countries are keen to avoid being seen as frustrating Beijing's demands. But the UK would be reluctant to push through such a controversial move during its own presidency of the EU in the second half of this year.

Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Brussels