Richard North, 04/10/2004  

With an EU delegation planning to meet Chinese delegation in Hanoi on 8-9 October, senior US State Department officials extremely twitchy at the prospect that the EU is about to lift the arms embargo on China (background: click here and here).

This follows a statement from Shen Goufang, Chinese assistant foreign minister, on 30 September, denouncing the ban on weapon sales and urging the EU to lift it, reflecting perhaps a tougher line by the new Chinese leadership.

The Taiwanese are also getting jittery, stepping up their arguments that dropping the ban would disturb the delicate military balance in Asia and increase the threat of war with Taiwan, a conflict that could drag in the US and spark a Japanese military build-up. They also insist that the EU embargo should continue until the Chinese improve their dismal human rights record.

While protests have been held in the capital, with demonstrators holding up France's tricolor flag bearing the slogan "EU Say No to China", Lai I-chung, director of foreign policy studies at the Taiwan think-tank, says that, with advanced weaponry, China would feel emboldened and tempted to use force to achieve its goal: unification with Taiwan. "The regional balance of power will be tipped over," he said.

In the US, the House of Representatives has already launched a pre-emptive strike, approving sanctions against European companies that export critical military goods or technology to China. Now, diplomatic pressure is being intensified, with the focus on the "New Europe" countries in Eastern Europe who, the State Department believes, will be more sympathetic to the US line.

Britain which, publicly at least, is maintaining an ambivalent line, could be caught in the middle of this increasingly tense stand-off. While she does not stand to benefit greatly from an arms sales bonanza, her involvement in EU programmes such as Galileo may mean that British firms are caught up in US sanctions.

Once again, therefore, Britain is being drawn into a foreign policy dispute not of her making, all in the name of solidarity with EU member states which are pursuing their own interests. At the very least, this will create further strains on the "special relationship" with the US and, quite possibly damage our own commercial interests.

But, of course, these minor problems are nothing compared with the magnificent benefits which we gain from our membership of the EU.

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