The subject of lifting the fifteen-year old EU arms embargo imposed on China in the wake of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square took center stage at the 7th annual EU-China Summit in the Netherlands on Wednesday. Though EU officials did not name a specific date -- delaying an ultimate decision -- they did pledge to continue working towards lifting the ban. In short, they gave a positive signal, but made no promises.
"The EU side confirmed its political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo," a joint EU-China statement issued at the summit in The Hague said.
EU representatives in attendance included the Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, and Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. Beijing representatives included China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Li Zhaoxing, the Foreign Minister.
Wait and see attitude
En route to a meeting with Premier Jiabao, Bot told reporters, "We are working assiduously but…the time is not right to lift the embargo."
European countries, led by Britain and Sweden, are looking for China to demonstrate progress on human rights and provide assurances that a massive weapons build-up, which could destabilize the entire region, is not planned.
Premier Jiabao denied his country was planning such a build-up. "Lifting the embargo does not mean China would start buying lots of arms in the EU," he told reporters at a press conference. "The embargo means getting rid of political discrimination against China."
"Remnant of the Cold War"
China has pushed hard in its dealings with the EU to end the embargo, which it considers a relic of the Cold War.
With a massive, increasingly affluent domestic market which European businesses are eager to exploit, Chinese officials have been able to exercise more leverage with European leaders. The EU has become China's largest trading partner, but an EU trade deficit of €64.2 ($86.34) billion still remains.
U.S. and rights groups critical
Human rights groups and the United States, however, are fiercely opposed to the EU lifting the weapons ban. Groups like Human Rights Watch have serious concerns over China's commitment to improving its human rights record.
The EU should not let "business interests trump its longstanding proclaimed commitment to human rights in China," it warned in a statement released shortly before the start of the summit.
US officials are worried that lifting the embargo would prompt China to go on a buying spree to accumulate weapons it can use to intimidate its neighbors, like Taiwan.
In an effort to appease both sides, the EU and China discussed a joint declaration on non-proliferation issues and the EU promised to set up a new code of conduct, should the embargo be lifted. It would aim to ensure arms imported from the EU are not intended for domestic oppression or regional conflicts.