European Union Said to Keep Embargo on Arms to China
WASHINGTON, March 21 - Yielding to pressure from President Bush and threats of retaliation from Congress, the European Union has put off plans to lift its arms embargo on China this spring and may not press the issue until next year, American and European officials said Monday.
The officials said that in addition to American pressure, European nations have been shaken by the recent adoption of legislation by the Chinese National People's Congress authorizing the use of force to stop Taiwan from seceding. The Chinese action, they said, jolted France and undercut its moves to end the embargo before June.
"Europe wants to move forward on the embargo, but the recent actions by China have made things a lot more complex," said a senior European official. "The timeline has become more difficult. The timeline is going to have to slip."
The embargo was imposed after China's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and although some countries have eased their restrictions, it has curbed the supply of weapons to China while also becoming a major irritant in China's relations with the West.
A senior State Department official said European "signals" of a shift in position had been transmitted in the last few days, most notably by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, and by a comment from the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, over the weekend.
Mr. Straw said in a television interview in Britain on Sunday that the problems of lifting the embargo "have actually got more difficult rather than less difficult," and that the Chinese action on Taiwan had created "a difficult political environment" that had stirred concern by both conservatives and liberals in Europe.
In Beijing early Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Mr. Straw's "sobering comments" reinforced the United States' continuing concern that lifting the embargo now would alter the balance of military forces in the region and undercut American efforts to get China to improve its human rights record.
Ms. Rice returned from Asia on Monday evening after several tough comments directed at China and, less directly, at Europeans. With tensions building in the Taiwan Strait, she said, and China seeking advanced technology for its navy, the sale of European equipment would jeopardize American efforts to secure the area.
"After all, it is American forces here in the Pacific that have played the role of security guarantor," Ms. Rice said.
European officials say the European Union will not back off its commitment, made last December and pressed by President Jacques Chirac of France, to lift the embargo at some point, but that doing so now would not be worth jeopardizing relations with the United States.
American and European officials said internal European politics had played a role in the timing of the planned easing of restrictions: Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain was willing to go along with the move, but he did not want it to occur while he serves as president of the European Union.
The presidency alternates among the union's 25 members every six months. Mr. Blair, who takes over at the end of June, could not be seen as defying American wishes on such a critical issue, those officials said. Some European and American officials said action on the embargo would probably wait until next year, after he has stepped down.
In the past few weeks, Europeans have pressed their case for lifting the embargo with the administration and with Congress, arguing that the rules covered lethal weapons but not the high-tech equipment that the United States worries about, like equipment that could help China with its command and control systems and tracking submarines and ships.
A top European envoy, Annalisa Giannella, was sent by Mr. Solana to Washington last week to make the case that Europe would expand a "code of conduct" restricting such equipment and set up a regime that would be effectively tighter than the current one. But Ms. Giannella was said to have persuaded no one, especially in Congress.
Indeed, administration and European officials say that Europeans have been taken aback by the ferocity of Congressional opposition to lifting the embargo, led by such Republican heavyweights as Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona.
Mr. Bush and his top aides have been increasingly vocal over the last couple of months in their demands that the arms embargo not be lifted. In addition, President Bush was reported by administration officials to have told the Europeans in Februrary that even if he went along with lifting the embargo, Congress would not. Congress has been alarmed by Chinese military expansion since the 1990's, when it opposed moves by President Clinton to expand military sales to the Chinese.
After Ms. Giannella's visit, Congressional leaders reiterated their opposition to lifting the embargo, in some cases threatening retaliation by blocking purchases of European military equipment for American forces.
The senior State Department official noted that Ms. Giannella "said she was here on a listening mode" and was "pummeled" on Capitol Hill. "The alarm bells tipped off Brussels that this wasn't going to work," he said, referring to the headquarters of the European Union.
President Chirac first proposed lifting the embargo in late 2003, arguing that it was obsolete. European diplomats say that France is not so much interested in selling arms to China as using the possibility of such sales as a way to sell commercial equipment, from Airbus planes to computers.
The European Union cannot take any action without a consensus. Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice have impressed enough European leaders with their stance that consensus to move on the embargo is now unlikely.
"You won't see a backing away from the commitment," said a European official. "But there's no consensus to act right now."