EU drifts away from lifting arms ban

HUMAN RIGHTS HICCUP: A meeting of top officials in Japan reminded the Europeans that the region would not be happy about China getting access to advanced weaponry

AFP AND AP , KYOTO, JAPAN

Sat, May 07, 2005 - Page 1

European leaders yesterday signaled that they were in no rush to lift an arms embargo on China and could tie it to improvements in human rights, amid criticism that the move would destabilize East Asia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) used a 38-nation meeting of senior Asian and European diplomats in Kyoto, Japan, to press for an end to the ban, which was imposed after the 1989 massacre of democracy protesters in Beijing.

But European leaders meeting with him said it was uncertain the embargo would be lifted as China had hoped under Luxembourg's presidency of the 25-nation bloc, which ends on June 30.

"We have still more than one month and a half. I don't know if we can lift or we are not able to lift," Luxembourgian Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters after talks with Li.

Speaking later after talks with his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, who reiterated Tokyo's opposition to ending the ban, Asselborn said a decision could come when emotions "are not so strong."

"We do not want to offend our friends in the region or to destabilize any region in the world," he said.

He said the EU could draft "an advanced code of conducts" in exchange for resuming weapons sales.

"People have to know that lifting the embargo does not mean it will be replaced by nothing," Asselborn said.

"Human rights can be included in the code of conduct," he said.

Asselborn acknowledged, however, that China's passage of a law last month authorizing military force to stop Taiwan from pursuing independence "was not very helpful."

China has lobbied for the embargo to be lifted before the rotating EU presidency shifts in July to Britain, which is seen as less enthusiastic about the idea.

Margherita Boniver, Italy's minister of state for foreign affairs, said no dates were mentioned during her meeting with Li.

"Dates were not discussed. They didn't mention any dates," she said. "I don't think there's a set date for that at all."

France has been the prime supporter of lifting the ban, saying the move would be primarily symbolic and recognize China's growing global clout.

The US is not part of the Asia-Europe Meeting, which was founded in 1996 as a way to increase dialogue between the regions away from Washington's strong influence.

The meeting came as North Korea defies the world by refusing to rejoin dialogue aimed at convincing Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons drive, and South Korea asked for China to play a "more proactive role."

The Kyoto meeting will also provide a chance for China and South Korea to hold talks with Japan on deteriorating relations.

China and South Korea, which suffered brutal occupations by Japan up to 1945, accuse Tokyo of whitewashing its World War II atrocities through the approval last month of a nationalist textbook.

Beijing is opposed to Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and Li said he discussed UN reform with his European and South Korean counterparts.

On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, on a visit to Luxembourg, warned that lifting the weapons ban could jeopardize stability in East Asia.

The EU has so far not reached a consensus on the issue due to opposition from members including Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, who want Beijing to improve human rights and peacefully resolve its conflict with Taiwan.

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