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News Update
23-12-04, 22:57
Pentagon warns EU on sale of arms to China

By Peter Spiegel in London

Financial Times

December 23 2004

The Pentagon is increasing pressure on European allies over weapons sales to China, warning that lifting the European Union arms embargo on Beijing could lead to a curtailment of military technology co-operation between the US and Europe.

The EU signalled at this month's Brussels summit that it intended to lift the embargo - in place since Tiananmen Square in 1989 - perhaps as early as the first half of next year.

But Pentagon officials said EU members should expect a "very powerful reaction", particularly in Congress, if the embargo was removed. "This has the potential to be a big brawl," said a senior Pentagon official involved in China policy.

"They're talking about helping the Chinese kill Americans more effectively," said the Pentagon official. "This is not what Europeans should be doing."

Defence officials said the most likely reaction would be a withdrawal of Bush administration backing for new measures to improve military technology transfers to European allies.

"If a situation arises where European systems are pointed at American personnel and platforms, one cannot just assume we're going to continue our arm sales," said a second senior Pentagon official. "Efforts we've made to open, widen, deepen transatlantic defence industrial trade are going to be circumscribed."

Such a move would hit the UK harder than any other European ally because of its increasing reliance on US military technology to keep its weapons systems at the cutting edge. Just three months ago, Britain won congressional backing for special preferred status when applying to gain access to US military technologies, a status that could be rescinded.

Any US retaliation could also hit the UK defence industry disproportionately hard because the two biggest foreign Pentagon suppliers - BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce - are British.

In recent weeks, the UK government has tried to defuse the brewing transatlantic row by mounting a diplomatic offensive aimed at convincing Washington that the embargo's end would not lead to a flood of new exports to Beijing.

The UK effort, which consisted of a mission to Washington last week, has included British promotion of an EU "code of conduct" and other restrictions that would purportedly limit and track weapons sales to China even after the end of the embargo.

The standoff has once again put the UK in the awkward role of transatlantic intermediary, a position it has repeatedly found itself since the war in Iraq. British officials have argued that US backing for a transparent export control regime would stymie French efforts to make weapons sales more opaque.

But Pentagon opponents said the UK-backed measures were inadequate, and expressed frustration with British efforts. "The British are sort of going with the flow, and that we're disappointed with," said the senior Pentagon official. "They pick issues on which they want to be good Europeans; this is not a good one to pick."

The UK foreign office declined to comment on the specifics of last week's mission to Washington.