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News Update
06-03-05, 22:51
China rebuffs arms ban fears

By Richard McGregor in Beijing and Guy Dinmore in Washington
Published: March 6 2005 13:09 | Last updated: March 6 2005 20:01

China on Sunday dismissed suggestions that the lifting of the European Union's arms embargo would prompt a surge in weapons purchases, saying it did not have the money to buy “expensive and useless” equipment from the EU.

Li Zhaoxing, the foreign minister, said China opposed the embargo, imposed by the west after the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, because it amounted to “political discrimination”.

“We are a developing country and we don't have the money to buy weapons which are expensive and useless to us,” he said.

The EU is considering lifting the embargo, in the face of vociferous objections from the US, and relying instead on a beefed up code of conduct regulating arms sales by member states. Mr Li's attempt to cool concerns about the lifting of the embargo reflects expectations among US officials that China would seek to buy technology to upgrade its forces rather than weapons systems off the shelf.

The Bush administration has little confidence in such assurances from China, which have been expressed before. Senior officials in Washington said the US remained deeply concerned over China's military build-up. Analysts in Washington said China's actual military spending was higher than expressed in the publicly-disclosed budget, and that China did not lack the means to continue its build-up of missiles and naval forces directed at Taiwan.

On Friday China announced a 12.6 per cent increase in its defence budget for 2005, its largest increase for three years. However, the official budget does not match real defence spending because it does not include most procurement costs.

Mr Li said suggestions that the lifting of the embargo and the rise in defence spending would destabilise the region were “unfounded”. But his soothing tone at a press conference during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, was contrasted by a tough line on Taiwan and on a statement by the US and Japan naming the island as an issue of joint security concern for the first time.

“Any practice of putting Taiwan directly or indirectly into the scope of Japan-US security co-operation constitutes an encroachment on China's sovereignty and interference into China's internal affairs,” Mr Li said.

To buttress China's claim over Taiwan and deter any efforts by the island's politicians to push for independence, the NPC will pass an anti-secession law during the coming session. The wording has yet to be released.

Mr Li professed ignorance about whether North Korea had a nuclear weapon.

Six-party talks, aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and hosted by China, have been derailed since Pyongyang's announcement that it had produced its first nuclear bombs.

In a reflection of China's frustration at the refusal of the US to engage Pyongyang more directly in negotiations, Mr Li said the legitimate concerns of the country should be addressed.

“They remain ready and willing to continue to participate in the six-party talks, and they hope the rest of the parties should display more sincerity.”

China's growing energy demand prompted a denial from Mr Li about its responsibility for rising oil prices. It was true that the country's oil imports had increased “a little bit” in recent years, he said, but it was “groundless” to blame China. Rising demands would mainly be met by China's domestic resources, he said.