EU bows to U.S. pressure, delays plans to lift China arms embargo


WASHINGTON - 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, U.S. and European officials said yesterday.

The officials said that in addition to U.S. pressure, European nations had 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. Although some countries have eased their restrictions, the embargo 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.

Straw said Sunday in a television interview 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 conservatives and liberals in Europe.

In Beijing early yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said 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 U.S. efforts to get China to improve its human rights record.

Rice returned from Asia yesterday evening after 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 U.S. efforts to secure the area.

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.

U.S. 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, 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. Blair, who takes over at the end of June, could not be seen as defying American wishes on such a critical issue, officials said. Some European and U.S. officials said action on the embargo would probably wait until next year, after he has stepped down.

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