LUXEMBOURG - German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer admits that finding an EU consensus on lifting an embargo on arms sales to China is difficult, as European Union governments on Friday put the brakes on plans to lift the ban.
"Things will take their time," Fischer told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
Fischer, who has said he is "sceptical" about an EU decision to lift the ban despite support for such a move by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, said finding an EU consensus on the issue was proving difficult.
"It depends on whether Beijing is willing to move, especially on human rights and peaceful conflict resolution," he said.
EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters governments were likely to delay the move for several months. "I can hardly imagine it will be an early decision," Ferrero- Waldner said.
While governments are careful not to set formal deadlines, EU diplomats say the ban is likely to stay in force until 2006.
Ferrero-Waldner said a decision on ending the arms ban was linked to China's efforts to improve its human rights record through ratification of an international treaty on civil and political rights and the release of political prisoners jailed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
EU leaders agreed last year to work towards a lifting of the embargo, with France and Germany insisting that the ban imposed after the Tiananmen Square violence was a relic of another era.
But fierce opposition to the move by the US and Japan has prompted at least some governments in the 25-nation bloc to make a policy U-turn.
The US argues that a resumption of European arms sales to China could worsen tensions between Beijing and Taipei and upset the fragile balance of power in the region.
If ever European equipment "helped kill American men and women in conflict, that would not be good for the (transatlantic) relationship", US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick warned recently.
Beijing's adoption earlier this year of a law authorising the use of force against Taiwan has made some EU states including Britain even more reluctant to lift the ban. Britain has said such a lifting of the ban will not go ahead and that France and Germany must accept it.
Reflecting European public concern on the issue, the European Parliament this week voted against the lifting of the embargo.
Although the resolution is not legally binding, a total of 431 EU lawmakers voted against ending the ban, while only 85 favoured such a move.
EU policymakers involved in preparations to lift the embargo insist it will be replaced by an even more effective code of conduct restricting European arms sales to Beijing.
The code, which is still being finalised, will include a 'tool box' to keep track of all EU arms sales to China. This will include regular information exchange among EU capitals on the quantity and quality of EU weapons delivered and their end-use.
EU officials insist that EU relations with China should not be viewed only through the narrow prism of the arms embargo.
"It is very important that the arms embargo does not overshadow our relationship with China which is much broader," Ferrero-Waldner underlined.
"China is getting more important politically. We support China's constructive role" in striving to ease tensions with North Korea and within Southeast Asia, Ferrero-Waldner added.
The EU also wanted to open a "strategic dialogue" with the United States on relations with China and "wider security issues in Asia", she said.
China's rise and its impact on relations with the US and Europe was one of the key issues discussed by EU foreign ministers at their meeting in Luxembourg.
A discussion paper submitted by Luxembourg to EU ministers underlines the "unprecedented" nature of China's economic expansion, adding: "China's growth changes the world economic balance."
The paper also highlighted China's increasing military clout, strained relations with Japan, efforts to ease tensions with North Korea and Beijing's focus on building a multi-polar world to balance US dominance of world affairs.
The EU had a major political and economic stake in supporting China's transition to prosperity, freedom and democracy, the paper said, adding: "A question for reflection is what sort of China we want to see in 10-15 years time and how best we can influence China's development."