Reuters News Report


EU tries to ease standoff with US over China arms

By Adam Entous
Tuesday Mar 8, 2005

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The European Union, faced with the threat of congressional retaliation, is sending a high-level delegation to Washington to try to defuse a trans-Atlantic dispute over EU plans to lift a 15-year-old ban on arms sales to China, officials said on Tuesday.

The delegation will arrive in Washington next week and will be headed by Annalisa Giannella, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's personal representative on nonproliferation issues.

In talks with European leaders last month, President Bush said Washington was deeply concerned that lifting the ban on arms sales would undercut the balance of military power between China and Taiwan.

China on Tuesday outlined an anti-secession bill that allows the use of military force to head off any bid for independence by Taiwan.

Key U.S. lawmakers have warned that Congress could move to curtail cooperation with Europe on a wide-range of military projects, including the Joint Strike Fighter, if the arms ban is lifted.

Officials said the delegation will try to soothe U.S. concerns with new EU plans to tighten a voluntary code of conduct on EU arms exports.

"It can serve a dual purpose -- of clarifying what it is that we're actually doing and how we're going about it, and also listening to the United States ... listening to what concerns exist here," an EU diplomat based in Washington said of the visit.

"It's important that we engage with our U.S. allies as we go forward. This is not a step that is being taken, or should be perceived as being taken, with the intention of making the United States' life difficult ... We have to try and reconcile things," the diplomat said.

The delegation, which will include European Commission representatives and experts from member states, will meet with senior Bush administration officials and key U.S. lawmakers. It will later travel to Japan, an EU official said.

The Europeans imposed the embargo after China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Expanse of China's military

Administration officials and members of Congress fear an end to the embargo could put U.S. forces in Asia at risk by speeding an expansion of China's military.

The Taiwan Relations Act mandates that Washington supply Beijing's arch-rival with defensive weapons.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan cautioned China on Tuesday over the anti-secession bill. "We oppose any attempts to determine the future of Taiwan by anything other than peaceful means," he said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on Sunday sought to assuage fears that the possible end of the EU arms embargo would lead to a shopping spree for weapons that Washington worries could be used in any conflict with Taiwan.

Bush has said that he would review the new EU safeguards on arms sales.

But key congressional aides were skeptical the EU delegation would persuade lawmakers to drop their opposition to lifting the embargo. "This is about marketing and sales, rather than a shift in policy position," one aide said.

A nonbinding resolution approved by the U.S. House of Representatives urges EU leaders to maintain the arms embargo. The motion, passed 411-3, said lifting the embargo would "place European security policy in direct conflict with United States security interests." (Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels)