Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Playing with fire

Hot on the heels of the Guardian story this morning, on the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China, the willingness of the UK to conform with the Luxembourg presidency's plans has been confirmed today by foreign secretary.

Jack Straw has told a House of Commons scrutiny committee that he expects the ban to be lifted during the Luxembourg presidency, claiming that an end to the ban would have "little practical effect".

He is relying on a strengthened Code of Conduct on arms exports which, he argues, would block the vast majority of weapons deals with China.

This, as we recorded in our last post, is hotly disputed by Amnesty International and, given that the Code is voluntary, few rational observers believe that it will have anything but a marginal effect on sales exports which France, in particular, is so anxious to provide.

It was the December European Council which ducked the issue and left the issue hanging, which led to an exceptionally sharp response from China. Now Straw is saying that "subject to satisfaction of the issues laid out by the European Council in December, we will support a lifting of the arms embargo."

That leaves Straw and the UK government siding with the EU, against US interests, in a situation where the US Congress is so concerned about transfer of military technology to potential enemies that it is already blocking arms permits (see here).

Straw, however, seems unconcerned. He takes the view that things will work out, saying: "The crucial issue is not to ask the US 'Are you going to vote for this?' but to say 'We hope, as close allies, we can provide you with an explanation and reassurance of why we are agreeing to do this and why it won't have the consequences you expect'."

Even if the US government goes along with this line – and that cannot be counted on – the recent indications are that Congress will not. Straw is playing with fire, and, if he persists, the thing that will go up in flames is the already strained special relationship.

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