Visiting Beijing this week (13-14 April), the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, praised Beijing's use of multilateralism. That is a key EU value, which is often contrasted with the U.S. preference for unilateral action. Prodi also underlined China's participation in the EU's autonomous satellite navigation project known as Galileo. China's burgeoning trade with the EU was also mentioned.
But Prodi was unable to offer much help on the issue that currently matters most to Beijing -- the lifting of an EU arms embargo imposed in the wake of the bloody crushing of a pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Speaking yesterday in Beijing, Prodi said EU member states are currently considering the issue. The commission itself has no formal powers in defense matters.
Prodi's spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, said in Brussels yesterday that much will depend on China's ability to improve its human rights record. "[Prodi], without making any explicit links or preconditions, said to the Chinese side -- both to the prime minister [and] to the president -- [that] if the Chinese were to make further positive moves towards improving the situation on human rights in China, that would be seen as a very positive sign in the European Union and could possibly help to find a solution to this issue," he said.
However, EU officials say that the debate within the bloc is much more complex. The proposal to lift the embargo was at first primarily sponsored by France and Germany. Both were thought to be interested in opening the vast Chinese market to their arms industries. It is also recognized that improved ties with China would help the EU to realize its ambition to become a major player on the world stage.
One EU official who asked not to be named told RFE/RL that China sees the arms embargo as having a great symbolic significance. Beijing argues that the embargo "spoils the atmosphere" of the evolving strategic partnership.
Prodi spokesman Kemppinen said China's leaders told Prodi the embargo has become obsolete. "On their own part, the Chinese underlined the fact that as they can see, the conditions that led to the imposing of the arms embargo are no longer there and they would like to see [a] rapid lifting of the embargo," he said.
The issue was discussed by EU foreign ministers in January, but has cooled off since. Germany has reportedly ceased to be a driving force behind efforts to have the embargo revoked. And Britain has come under strong U.S. pressure to veto any moves to lift the embargo.
The United States reportedly argues that China's human rights record has not improved. Washington has also voiced increasing concern that the lifting of the embargo could have a negative effect on the security of Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the global human rights watchdog Amnesty International released a statement in Brussels yesterday saying a number of EU member states are already circumventing the embargo and have been selling China spare parts for arms and ammunition for years.
EU sources say the debate is complicated by some bloc members who argue that an embargo is unnecessary as the EU already has a "code of conduct" which prevents arms sales to countries with repressive regimes.
Officials say any EU decision on the embargo is likely to be put off until the end of the current Irish presidency in June, and that the issue may only resurface at the EU-China summit in October.