Mon, Apr 18, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Arms ban `in China's court': EU

CODE OF CONDUCT Although the EU has committed to try lifting the arms embargo on China, new tensions between Beijing and its neighbors have complicated matters


China must do more to allay concerns over human rights and its saber-rattling stance on Taiwan if it wants the EU to lift a 16-year-old arms embargo anytime soon, the bloc is warning.

The upsurge in tensions between China and Japan is also fueling questions over the wisdom of plans to end the arms bans, diplomats said after a two-day meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

"The ball is in China's court," said one source after the informal talks clouded by debate over lifting the arms ban, slapped on Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Officially, the 25-nation bloc remains committed, as agreed by an EU summit last December, to try to lift the embargo before the end of the current Luxembourg EU presidency in June.

The drive, spearheaded by EU heavyweights France and Germany, comes despite warnings by the US and Japan that such a move would upset the balance of power between Beijing and Taipei.

But the issue has been complicated notably by China's adoption last month of an "Anti-Secession" Law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward full independence.

Washington, which fears its forces in the region could be drawn into a conflict, has been leaning heavily on the EU.

US congressman have even warned that a lifting of the EU ban could lead to trade repercussions.

Seeking to calm concerns, the EU says that any decision to end the embargo would be accompanied by a beefing up of a self-imposed code of conduct on weapons sales.

The European bloc insists that a lifting of the ban would not lead to a significant increase in arms sales to China, either quantitively or qualitatively.

But there is little doubt that the furore sparked by the Anti-Secession Law, and more recently alarm over anti-Japanese protests in China fueling strains between Tokyo and Beijing, have put a brake on the EU decision.

"I can hardly imagine there will be an early and easy decision on this," said EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner at the weekend meeting in a picturesque Luxembourg chateau.

One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, added: "The Chinese law and now developments in China and Japan are complicating debate."

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, whose country has been accused of seeking to curry favor with Beijing by spearheading the drive to end the arms ban, insisted ending the embargo by June remains "realistic."

But Germany's Joschka Fischer stressed that the EU still wants China to do more to allay Western concerns. One key EU demand is for Beijing to ratify a UN covenant on political and civil rights.

"There are people who say the time is not ripe," said Fischer.

Indeed, doubts are growing that an accord can be struck by June, and many are now looking to Britain, which takes over the EU's six-month rotating presidency from July 1.

In theory, London will be less likely to broker an accord, being more sensitive to US pressure due to its closer ties with Washington, leading some to speculate that the arms ban may not now be lifted before next year.

But others insist that Britain is as committed as anyone to last December's EU decision. They point notably to a September EU-China summit as a possible focus for efforts to persuade Beijing to make a gesture to meet EU concerns.

Britain's Europe minister Denis MacShane said London would deal with the issue if it remained unresolved after July 1.

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