EU could lift arms embargo on China
Nicholas Watt in Luxembourg
European leaders are heading for a confrontation with human rights groups amid signs that an EU arms embargo on China, imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, will be lifted within months.
Amnesty International warned last night that "meaningless" conditions will be imposed on Beijing because of Europe's determination to tap into China's booming economy.
The warning came as senior sources in the Luxembourg government, which has just taken over the six-month presidency of the EU, indicated that the arms embargo could be lifted by the summer.
"We have a mandate to resolve this problem," one senior Luxembourg ministerial source said. "We have an obligation to find a solution by the end of the presidency."
France, with the support of Germany, is determined to lift the arms embargo as Jacques Chirac eyes lucrative trading opportunities in China. Beijing, which says it has little interest in buying European arms, has warned Europe that it will never enjoy a proper trading relationship until the embargo is lifted.
The Luxembourg source indicated that France and Germany, whose leaders drummed up millions of pounds of business on recent high-profile trade missions to China, are winning the argument within the EU.
Britain, which has shared US reservations about lifting the embargo, is said to have accepted the change. Tony Blair, whose last trip to China in July 2003 was overshadowed by the suicide of the government scientist David Kelly, is determined that British business should not lose out.
The most significant change of heart is said to be taking place in Washington. The White House has been adamantly opposed to lifting the embargo on the grounds that greater access to the European arms market might encourage Beijing to escalate its conflict with Taiwan.
Luxembourg is confident that Washington will be won round by tough restrictions which will be imposed on the export of arms.
Amnesty International fears that European leaders will waste a chance to impose stringent conditions on China.
Dick Osting, director of Amnesty's EU office, said: "The embargo was triggered by the human rights disaster in Tiananmen Square. If it is to be lifted the Chinese should do something to justify that. There should be some kind of acknowledgment by the Chinese government about what happened. To date there has been no inquiry."
But Mr Osting admits that realpolitik - and Europe's desire to trade with China - are powerful forces. The European Union is China's largest trading partner, while China is the EU's second largest trading partner after the US. Total trade is around $200bn.
In a sign of the rapid growth of China's economy, Shanghai has just overtaken Rotterdam to become the world's second largest port, behind Singapore.