Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today visits China and he will discuss the matter with Chinese leaders. Straw has said he expects the 25-nation EU to end the embargo by June.
That prospect has annoyed both the United States and Japan. Washington is worried that EU arms delivered to China could end up being used against Taiwan, a close ally which the United States is obliged to defend. Tokyo fears growing regional tensions if China possesses more modern arms.
Japan expressed strong objections today, at a Tokyo press conference held by Jack Straw and Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.
"The matter of the lifting of the arms embargo is one of great concern not only for Japan but for the security of East Asia as a whole. We are against a lifting of the arms embargo," Machimura said.
In an interview yesterday with Britain's "Financial Times," Straw took a firm line. He acknowledged that lifting the embargo would displease some countries, particularly the United States. But he said the role of foreign policy is not to "eliminate" differences, but to "manage" those differences.
He said most people don't realize that the embargo is in fact limited in scope. Analysts note that even with the measure in place, the EU sold several hundred millions of dollars' worth of arms-related items to China last year. Straw said the end of the embargo will be accompanied by a new code of conduct, which specifies that the arms are not to be used in regional conflicts or domestic repression.
At the Tokyo press conference, Straw appeared to take a more conciliatory line. He stressed no decision will be made for some time.
"All European member states are taking full account of issues of regional stability here, and I would also draw attention to the fact that at the EU summit [in] the middle of December of last year, of 2004, all the heads of states and government decided that if there were to be a lifting of the embargo and its substitution by the EU code of conduct on arms sales, there should, and I quote, 'be no quantitative nor qualitative increase in arms sales by European member states to China,'" Straw said.
Chinese officials have said the same thing -- namely, that China wants the embargo lifted because it is unfair, not because it wants to go on an arms-buying spree. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan clarified the Chinese position in Beijing today.
"We believe the arms embargo should be lifted. It doesn't fit with China's development and with the bilateral relationship with the EU. If lifted, China will not import a huge number of weapons. We believe that if the arms embargo is lifted, it will benefit the developing relations between China and the EU," Kong said.
Commenting on this, security analyst Sibylle Bauer of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said lifting the arms embargo is not so much a military move as one calculated to win goodwill for the EU in general trading terms.
"The interest of the EU in lifting the embargo is primarily an economic one. It is not really to sell weapons as such, but it is to sell dual-use technology, high-tech equipment, and also of course to open up the civilian market," Bauer said.
Bauer said the things China wants from Europe are items such as aircraft engines, high-tech aviation equipment, and information technology (IT) equipment. It does not want complete weapons systems -- it already buys those from Russia.
Bauer also said there is a general misunderstanding about the EU embargo. She described it as a "political declaration" rather than a proper embargo.
She said it dates from before the EU had a common foreign and security policy, and therefore it has no legal standing and is observed very unevenly by the EU member states.
She said that as the embargo stands now, it should either be strengthened and turned into a proper legal instrument of export control, or dropped. It seems clear that the EU is choosing the latter course.