EU snubs Rice to lift China arms embargo

THE EUROPEAN Union said yesterday it was moving ahead with plans to lift an arms embargo on China despite hearing a raft of reservations from the new American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

Ms Rice made clear her continuing objections to normalising arms sales with Beijing yesterday during a visit to Brussels. However, she avoided a direct clash on the issue and hinted that a compromise could yet be found.

The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said: "We are moving towards lifting the arms embargo. The European Union cannot be accused of rushing into this."

Behind the scenes, officials are working on a mechanism by which Washington can be consulted on sensitive exports before licences are granted. The EU also wants to toughen a code of conduct governing all arms sales to limit the type of weapons exported. This would probably include a special monitoring system to be applied to countries to which embargos had recently been applied, such as China.

The issue has been on the table since 2003 but it has been the cause of growing transatlantic tension as the EU side made clear its desire to end the measures before July of this year. They were originally imposed after the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yesterday, Ms Rice gave a diplomatic response to questions on the embargo, arguing that problems remained but that the EU was taking on board US concern. She said she was not sure where the discussions "will come out". Ms Rice appreciates the strength of opposition in the US Congress to a European move to relax measures against the Beijing government. Nearing the end of a week-long diplomatic tour of Europe, she was anxious to stress the improvement in transatlantic relations and told journalists: "I really have to underscore how much the Europeans have tried to take account of our concerns; how good the discussions have been."

But she pointed out that 2,000 people who were arrested after Tiananmen Square were still being detained, and that the US was worried about "the military balance in that region", where American troops are stationed. She said: "We have concerns about technology and technology transfer."

Even the UK, traditionally the US's closest ally, expects the embargo to be lifted; but Poland yesterday suggested that it might seek to slow down the move after pressure was exerted from Washington.

Beijing has lobbied hard for the embargo to be lifted, arguing that it places China in a category of pariah states such as North Korea and Zimbabwe. Its case has been backed by Paris and Berlin, both of which wish to improve the West's strategic relationship with China.

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