Reuters News Report


EU maintains China arms embargo, for now

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The European Union pledged to work towards lifting its 15-year-old arms embargo on China on Wednesday, suggesting the ban could be lifted next year despite fierce opposition from Washington and human rights groups.

Imposed after Beijing's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the embargo took centre stage at a summit in the Netherlands between two economic powerhouses whose trade runs into hundreds of billions of euros.

The United States fears an end to the embargo could trigger a buying spree for arms that could be used to threaten China's diplomatic foe, Taiwan, and upset the strategic balance in Asia. Others are more concerned about Beijing's human rights record.

"The EU side expressed its political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo," the EU and China said in a joint statement issued at the summit in The Hague.

Human Rights groups say protesters on issues from labour problems to the dominant role of the ruling Communist Party are routinely arrested in China, and have expressed concern Beijing uses the "war on terrorism" as an excuse to crack down on Tibet.

The EU and China said they would go on working to "achieve more meaningful and positive results" on human rights, adding that Beijing was committed to ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it signed in 1998.

"They underlined their respect for international human rights standards provided for in international human rights instruments," the EU and China said, reaffirming a commitment to work together on human rights.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 25-nation EU, said he hoped the arms ban would be lifted next year.

"We are working assiduously but ... the time is not right to lift the embargo," he told reporters as he went into the talks with Premier Wen Jiabao and four Chinese ministers.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana suggested in an interview with French radio that a decision on the embargo could come at an EU summit in March, but Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said there was no guarantee it would be lifted, and stated that no timetable had been set.

Wen, branding the ban a relic of the Cold War and political discrimination, dismissed concerns that Beijing would go on an arms buying spree if it was removed. "Lifting the embargo does not mean China would start buying lots of arms in the EU," he told a news conference.

The United States expressed relief the EU had not set a timetable for dropping its arms embargo. "The key thing we were concerned about was whether they would come up with any dates. They didn't and that's a good thing," a U.S. State Department official said.

France has led a drive to scrap the embargo, which could open up lucrative trade opportunities with the world's fastest- growing major economy and help cut the EU's trade deficit with China, which was 64.2 billion euros ($86 billion) in 2003.

Britain and Sweden, however, are among the most adamant that China must demonstrate clear progress on human rights before it can be removed from a list of states under an EU arms embargo. The European Parliament in Strassbourg, and a number of national parliaments, such as in Germany and The Netherlands, have expressed strong opposition to lifting the embargo.

The EU's executive Commission says Beijing must demonstrate progress on human rights. It also wants a new EU code of conduct on arms exports to guarantee greater transparency and ensure that equipment sold is not used in domestic repression or regional conflicts. Some officials say the new rule book is likely to be agreed this month, but others took the position that it could still take a long time.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement ahead of the summit that the EU should not let "business interests trump its longstanding proclaimed commitment to human rights in China".

Dutch police arrested 4 activists from international press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders during a protest at the summit, the group said. At least 26 journalists and 62 cyber dissidents are currently imprisoned in China, it said.