Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress Wednesday the United States is lobbying hard against a French-led effort to lift the European Union ban on arms sales to China. Weapons sales bans by the United States and EU have been in place against China since the lethal 1989 Chinese military crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Though French President Jacques Chirac has said that the weapons ban no longer makes any political sense, Mr. Powell says it is an inopportune time for Europe to consider lifting the sanction, with tensions between China and Taiwan at a high level over China's missile buildup in the area, and the pending election referendum on that subject in Taiwan next month.
In testimony before the House International Relations Committee, the Secretary of State said he had raised the issue in a telephone discussion earlier Wednesday with Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen in his capacity as the rotating EU president, and had also discussed it with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin a their meeting last Friday in New York.
"He understands the sensitivity with which we feel, think about, about this issue in light of the missiles arrayed against Taiwan, the Taiwan referendum that's coming up," he said. "A very sensitive time. Why start changing this policy? China's human rights activities. Why start thinking about changing this policy?"
China has been pressing for an early end to the European arms restriction, reportedly out of concern that a repeal would be much more difficult after May, when the EU accepts 10 new members including several openly sympathetic with the U.S. position on the issue.
U.S. officials are concerned that Chinese access to European military technology could upset the balance of power between China and Taiwan, to which the United States is committed by an act of Congress to provide defensive arms.
China has been strongly opposed to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian's plans to put the issue of China's missile forces up for a referendum vote in the March 20 election in which he is also seeking re-election.
Under questioning at the House hearing, Mr. Powell said the Bush administration "doesn't really see a need" for the Taiwan ballot question, and opposes action by either side that would change the status quo in the region.
"Taiwan is a democratic place and if they choose to have a referendum, they can have a referendum," he said. "We've made clear to them, however, that we do not want to see these actions lead in any way to change in the situation. We still are fully supportive, and totally committed to our one-China policy based on the three communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, which gives us certain obligations with respect to the security of Taiwan. And we don't believe any action should be taken in the region that would unilaterally change the situation."
Last month, under pressure from Washington, the Taiwanese President retreated from a plan to present a ballot question bluntly demanding that China renounce the use of force and withdraw missiles aimed at the island.
In its place, Taiwanese voters will now be asked whether, if China refused to withdraw the missiles, Taiwan should acquire advanced anti-missile systems.
A second measure on the ballot will ask if Taiwan should engage in negotiations with the mainland on a "peace and stability" framework for cross-strait integration.
China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, continues to describe the ballot initiative as a provocation and is reported to have pressed the U.S. administration to take a tougher stand against it.
Mr. Powell told a committee questioner the United States "is not expressing support" for either ballot question, and said Taiwan and China will have to work together to "eventually find a way of reconciling their different views and interests."