Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The European Union Wednesday held out the prospect of lifting a 15-year-old arms embargo on China, possibly by next year.
Washington firmly opposes any move to end the ban, imposed as a direct response to the bloody crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
EU member-states led by Germany and France had been pressing for an immediate removal of the ban, but Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency said "the time is not right."
Bot said he hoped the ban would be lifted next year, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a French radio station that it may be removed in the first six months of next year. The EU holds a summit next March.
Bot made his comments in The Hague, where the EU and China held their seventh annual summit.
A joint statement issued afterwards said the Europeans confirmed having "the political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo" and that China had welcomed the "positive signal."
China's military buildup, oiled by the world's second-largest defense budget, currently relies mostly on Russia and Ukraine, but Germany and France are keen to compete for lucrative contracts.
Stated reasons for U.S. opposition to a lifting of the ban are three-fold: China could use advanced European weaponry and other defense items like radar and communications equipment against Taiwan in a future conflict that draws in the U.S.; European arms bought by China may be transferred to third countries; and human rights violations remain a serious concern.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a press conference in The Hague that lifting the embargo "does not mean China would start buying lots of arms in the EU." Instead, it meant "getting rid of political discrimination against China."
Beijing has also criticized attempts to link the embargo issue and human rights.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue Zhang said last week China had made "tremendous progress in human rights" in recent years.
But the world's leading campaign groups focusing on China strongly dispute that claim and uniformly want the arms ban to remain in place, arguing that lifting it would remove an incentive for Beijing to end gross rights abuses.
Britain and Sweden have led opposition to the Franco-German drive, calling on China to demonstrate that it is improving its human rights record and does not plan a weapons buying spree that could destabilize the region.
EU officials say the 25-nation bloc will work on setting up a new and tighter "code of conduct" for weapons sales, in an effort to ensure that any European arms would not be used in regional conflicts, or to subdue internal opposition.
The European Parliament has voted in favor of retaining the embargo, and Japan would also like to see it remain in place.
See Earlier Story:
EU Edges Closer to Lifting Ban on Arms Sales to China (Dec. 7, 2004)
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