EU considers end to ban on arms sales to Beijing

AP , BRUSSELS

Sun, Jan 25, 2004 - Page 1

The EU may end its ban on arms sales to China this spring, diplomatic sources said, a move that could allow China's big-spending military to buy cutting-edge weapons ranging from French Mirage jets to stealthy German submarines.

At a meeting tomorrow, EU foreign ministers will debate the issue but not make a formal announcement, said the officials.

"It will take a few months," one EU diplomat close to the negotiations said on Friday.

"But we are not talking about something way off in the future. In the spring, perhaps," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

China's military has been moving quickly to modernize, fueled by the country's booming economy. A Pentagon report in 2002 warned China was intent on developing a vastly more potent military, with its training focusing more on the US as an enemy.

For 13 consecutive years, China has made double-digit increases in the public budget for the 2.5-million strong People's Liberation Army. Reported defense spending grew 17.6 percent to US$20 billion in 2002 -- but foreign analysts say the true spending is likely four times the official figures.

Europe imposed the ban on weapons sales after Beijing's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said there had been a "shift of mood" in European capitals, although some opposition remained.

"There is clear pressure from China to get the arms embargo lifted," Udwin said Friday.

The foreign ministers of the 15 EU nations -- and the 10 countries joining the bloc in May -- have agreed to re-examine the embargo, said French foreign ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous in Paris. "No one is really opposed to this objective," he added.

Proponents of ending the ban say there will still be the EU's Code of Conduct for arms sales to act as a safety net. The code forces EU nations to ensure the arms they sell are not used for internal repression, external aggression or where serious violations of human rights have occurred.

The EU view has long been that China must significantly improve its human rights record before the arms embargo can be lifted.

However, last fall, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, on a visit to China, said France and Germany wanted the embargo gone.

There still is opposition to that in Europe.

"We are willing to debate an end to the arms embargo, but for us this is not the right moment to lift it," said a Dutch diplomat.

The Netherlands and Scandinavian nations lead opposition to ending the arms ban, along with the European Parliament.

Last month, the EU assembly cited human rights violations, noting a report on relations with China that the EU foreign ministers endorsed in October.

It said persistent rights violations overshadow China's remarkable economic growth. It called the gap between China's rights record and internationally accepted rights "worrisome."

For its part, however, China responded by saying relations with the EU "now are better than any time in history" and that ending the arms ban can only make things better.