The EU remains split over lifting the 15-year-old arms embargo on China, but "the tide is turning" and the bloc appears set to end the ban sooner or later, diplomats said on Wednesday.
While few were willing to speculate on when that might be, the campaign spearheaded by France and Germany appears to be gaining momentum inside the 25-member bloc, they said.
"The tide is turning in that direction," said an EU source after an EU-China summit in The Hague clouded by the arms embargo issue, which Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (
French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have been the most vocal supporters of lifting the embargo, slapped on Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, while Italy has also made it clear it backs ending the ban.
According to EU sources, countries which might lean toward ending the ban include Spain, while Britain and Sweden could also be convinced. The most reluctant to ease restrictions on selling arms to China are understood to include the Nordic states, where concerns about human rights abuse remain the strongest, diplomats say.
EU source underline that the rights concern is shared by all, even if views vary on whether it should be decisive on the arms issue.
"There is a linkage between human rights and arms sales," said one EU source.
But apart from rights, two key factors are influencing the debate: one technical and one political.
The technical one is an existing voluntary EU code of conduct on arms sales to anywhere in the world.
There is general agreement that, if the China ban is to be lifted, the code of conduct has to be beefed up -- to ensure the floodgates are not opened to allow China, for instance, to bolster its arsenal in its tense standoff with Taiwan.
How exactly to strengthen the code is under intense discussion among the 25 EU member states, with the focus on options such as bolstering the obligation to notify all fellow EU states about any arms deals.
One official said there could even be agreement on this by the end of the year, although others urge caution.
But the political factor influencing the debate is potentially more tricky: it is pressure from the US, which is openly fiercely opposed to lifting the embargo.
It is understood that this is potentially a greater factor for countries with traditionally strong ties with Washington, such as Britain whose special relationship was so well tested during the Iraq war.
This could even include the Netherlands, which currently holds the EU presidency, some critics suggest, although Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot underlined on Wednesday that he was working "assiduously" to lift the ban.
Bot also said that he hopes the embargo can be ended next year. "I hope so, for them," he said.
The embargo was decided on June 27, 1989, three weeks after the Tiananmen Square crackdown which sparked outrage around the world. Countries like France argue that, a decade and a half later, the ban is "outdated."
Whatever its fate, Wen sought to reassure his European counterparts at Wednesday's summit that Beijing has no intention of going on an arms spending spree once the ban ends.
"Lifting the embargo would not mean that China would start buying lots of arms from the EU," he said. "It would mean getting rid of a political discrimination against China."