The EU's 15-year-old arms embargo on China will probably be lifted within the next six months, the British government said.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Wednesday that he expected the ban, imposed after Beijing's bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, to be lifted during Luxembourg's six-month turn as president of the EU, which lasts until the end of June.
Straw said that an end to the embargo would not see arms flood into China, due to the EU's code of conduct. The code forces member nations to ensure the weapons they sell are not used for internal repression, external aggression or where serious violations of human rights have occurred.
``Our position in principle is that, subject to satisfaction of the issues laid out by the European Council in December, we will support a lifting of the arms embargo,'' Straw told a parliamentary committee.
"I think you would get relatively short odds on a decision happening under the Luxembourg presidency. It is more likely than not that this will be decided under this presidency," he said.
Germany and France have led the calls for the ban to be lifted, and argue that China's human rights record has improved since 1989. But other EU nations, including Sweden and Ireland, oppose the ban being lifted and want the "code of conduct" to be tightened to act as a stronger safety net if and when arms sales are resumed.
The US has pushed hard for the EU not to lift the ban and fears an escalation of tension between Beijing and Taipei.
Straw said efforts would be made to reassure Washington.
"The US have an entirely legitimate and understandable interest both in the effectiveness of the EU's system of arms control and in issues of regional stability in that area," he said.
"There will be intensive discussions with the US," he said.