Jack Straw arrived in Beijing last night to tell his Chinese hosts that Britain will help to lift EU sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre, despite US and Japanese objections.
The Chinese media have been trumpeting the readiness of Germany and France to press the other European Union members to lift the ban on arms sales to China imposed as part of the horrified reaction to the crackdown against peaceful demonstrators in 1989.
After 1989 France rushed to offer asylum to Chinese dissidents and sold weapons to Taiwan, but is now the keenest to tap the Chinese market, even in the teeth of American opposition. Washington fears that the arms could be used against US forces in any war over Taiwan, and continues to list China as a major offender in its annual human rights reports. The EU maintains only a token "human rights dialogue" with China. Britain has belatedly joined the effort to persuade other members to lift the sanctions in the first half of the year while Luxembourg holds the EU presidency. Mr Straw told a Commons select committee last Wednesday that he expected the arms ban to be lifted, "more likely than not" in the next six months. Mr Straw flew to Beijing yesterday from Tokyo, where his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, told him that his country was firmly opposed to the move. A senior US official yesterday reaffirmed America's strategic concerns about the deal in comments to a British newspaper.
Today Mr Straw is likely to meet the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, in a hasty effort to harvest some commercial rewards for the concession.
China is dangling big deals in front of its friends, such as purchases of the new giant Airbus planes as well as nuclear power stations, new trains, including the German magnetic levitation train, as well as battleships, submarines, helicopters, avionics and other technology.
If the EU lifts the sanctions it could start a scramble that will put pressure on the United States to join in and call into question its willingness to defend Taiwan, the only part of China to become a democracy.
Mr Straw is in Beijing as the family of Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese leader who backed the democracy protests in 1989, is in mourning. The Chinese media has maintained a telling silence on the death of Zhao, who died on Monday aged 85 after 15 years as a virtual prisoner in his courtyard in the centre of Beijing. Most people missed the one-line report. It omitted his former titles as Communist Party general secretary and premier who for seven years had masterminded China's economic reforms.