While France and Germany lead a group of EU countries intent on ending the arms embargo on China, some are becoming nervous due to Chinese moves against Taiwan and increasing US pressure.
The Chinese might have to wait a while for arms from Europe
French President Jacques Chirac said on Wednesday that he still expects an agreement to lift a European Union arms ban on China by the end of June, despite growing signs it could be delayed. He recalled that an EU summit in December had agreed to aim for an end to the 15-year-old embargo under the Luxembourg EU presidency, which runs until June 30.
EU leaders had agreed that "the current presidency must assure the lifting of the embargo on China... Nothing leads me to believe that there will be a change on this subject," Chirac said at the end of a two-day EU summit in Brussels.
The EU arms ban was slapped on China after the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, but France has led a group of EU countries arguing that it is outdated and should be lifted.
Schröder stands firm on shaky foundations
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the Brussels summit
One of the major backers of the French stance is staunch ally, Germany. "Nothing has changed, and nothing has changed in my position," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder told reporters. However, a threatened technology embargo against Europe which was discussed by the US Congress has shaken the resolve of some German supporters.
"We were told there could be consequences if the EU lifted the embargo," said Werner Hoyer, foreign affairs spokesman for the liberal opposition party, the FDP. The Greens, the junior partner in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition government, have also started to question the timing for lifting the embargo.
Leading Green officials said China had not sufficiently improved its human rights record to warrant an end to the embargo. Germany's opposition parties, meanwhile, are preparing to put the issue to a vote next month in the German Parliament, in a move that could split and further weaken Schröder's Social Democrat-led coalition.
Anti-secession law heightens concern
Chirac's remarks came amid growing signs that the 25-member EU could be affected enough by the growing international opposition to delay the decision, most notably because of "complications" triggered by China's new anti-secession law targeting Taiwan.
Beijing's passing of the law granting it the right to use force to curtail independence moves by Taiwan has made countries including Britain more wary of the move, which the US fears would give China access to advanced weaponry. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned that ending the embargo would send the wrong signal at a time of increased tensions.
President Chirac moved to reassure the US on Tuesday on the subject of weapons sales to a reopened Chinese market. "The Europeans have no intention of launching a policy of arms exports to China, which is not asking for this," he told the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun. "What the Europeans want to do is normalize relations with China."
France and Germany look set to continue lobbying for the embargo to be scrapped despite growing discontent. France in particular sees boosting trade and diplomatic ties with China as a way of counter-balancing US world power. Along with Paris, Berlin has been a strong backer of ending the ban with its own lucrative trade agreements with the People's Republic a strong incentive to keep the Chinese onside.
Washington's allies feeling the heat
Though no decision has been made as yet, the supporters of an end to the embargo may find themselves increasingly marginalized. While France and Germany are in favor of ending the embargo, other EU nations -- notably those with closer links to Washington -- side with London in the cautious camp.
If the EU climbs down on the embargo, it will be a serious embarrassment for the bloc's efforts to forge a common policy over an issue that had already divided the 25 member states, according to diplomats and security analysts at the summit.
EU foreign policy head Javier Solana declined to forecast if the EU could meet its target of lifting the embargo by June, saying: "It is too early to say whether we will be able to finish on time or not." The EU insists arms exports will in any case be more tightly regulated by a revised "code of conduct" to be agreed soon.
Human rights developments could prove decisive
Earlier on Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Beijing was making progress on human rights and deserved to have the ban lifted. "It is not justified to maintain it," Solana told reporters as he arrived for the summit. "Things are moving (on human rights)," he said. He noted that Washington this year had not sought China's censure at the current session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, citing some improvements.
However, one of the Chinese students behind the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstration, which ended in a bloody massacre by troops, appealed to European leaders on Wednesday not to lift an arms embargo on Beijing.
The Tiananmen Square protests ended in a massacre.
"As China's regime still defends the slaughtering of peaceful student protesters, the notion that the EU might be willing to make more weapons available distresses me greatly; I can only hope that Europe will keep our hopes alive," Wang Dan said in the Financial Times.
Tiananmen protestor appeals to Europe
Contrary to what Solana stated, he said, human rights conditions in China were deteriorating.
"Some European leaders have even commended China for progress in human rights. Such claims reveal ignorance of the realities in China. No doubt everyone has watched the country's economic progress, but in political reform China has gone backwards," Dan said.