- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

LONDON — Britain has switched sides and thrown its support behind a European Union plan to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo against China, a move that threatens to trigger a rift in Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently told Parliament that the European Union’s ban against arms sales to the Asian giant, imposed in the wake of the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, probably would be lifted by June.

Mr. Straw has since elaborated, telling Britain’s Financial Times newspaper this week that London would have to work to ease tensions with Washington over the policy shift.

“The presentational problem we have in Washington is the people read the headline, ‘They’ve lifted the embargo,’ and it then takes time to explain that the embargo has a very limited application,” he told the newspaper.

“The challenge in terms of foreign policy is not to eliminate differences or franchise out policy but to manage those differences.”

The European Union had $544 million of arms exports to China in 2003, up from $275 million dollars in 2002, according to its annual report on arms exports cited by the Financial Times.

Britain has been the United States’ strongest ally in the war in Iraq, but seeds of discord between the two have been sown in recent months.

The British shift involves turbulent domestic politics as well as anger directed at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government over charges of U.S. protectionism in military sales.

The conflict in Iraq is widely unpopular in Britain, and Mr. Blair — bidding for a third term in an election widely expected this spring — is anxious to lose the “Bush’s poodle” label applied by some critics.

“There is clear evidence that his relationship with Bush, his association with the war in Iraq is an electoral liability,” said John Peterson, professor of international politics at the University of Edinburgh.

The Blair government’s shift on the arms for China issue, analysts say, also reflects a simmering feud with Washington over efforts in the U.S. Congress to reject Britain’s earlier request that it be exempted from complex U.S. arms-export regulations.

Fury erupted seven months ago when British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon wrote to the Pentagon to describe Congress’ rejection of the waiver as a “potentially serious blow to U.S.-UK relations.”

“They would put us under pressure domestically to review our own policies and to consider whether we were prepared to place significant defense contracts with U.S. suppliers in the face of what could only be seen as a demonstrably uneven playing field,” Mr. Hoon said.

His comments were interpreted as a warning that unless Britain was allowed to share in U.S. military technology secrets, London would stop buying American military equipment.

As if to underscore that point, the British defense secretary announced three months later that the country had placed its biggest order for military trucks in a quarter century — a contract worth $2.1 billion — with a German-owned company, Man ERF, rather than an American supplier.

Publicly, the Blair administration has sought to soften the blow of its shift on arms sales to China.

The timing of its announcement that the embargo would be ended by June was seen as an attempt to avoid an open fight with President Bush ahead of his trip to Europe in February, which is to include a stop in London.

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