HL Deb 01 February 2005 vol 669 cc98-100

2.53 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to resume arms sales to China.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, as our reports on strategic export controls make clear, there are currently exports of equipment on the military list from this country to China. The EU embargo does not prohibit such exports and United Kingdom policy on what may be exported to China was made explicit to Parliament in June 1998. Our exports are subject to the UK's consolidated criteria, which are among the strictest control measures anywhere in the world and, in our view, offer the best guarantee that military exports will not be used for internal repression or external aggression.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Has she discussed with our close allies, the United States of America, proposals, if they exist, to relax the EU embargo? What has been that country's reaction?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may be clear with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. We do not believe that this is a relaxation. I well understand the misapprehension, because the use of the word "embargo" might reasonably be interpreted by him, by me or by anyone else, as an absolute ban. It is not an absolute ban and the exports of our goods on the military list have been regulated under the code that I described-indeed, almost all refusals of exports to China are made under the code, not the embargo. Of course this issue has been discussed with the United States, most recently by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, will my noble friend draw to the attention of the governments of France and Germany the last part of her Answer, relating to weapons used for internal repression or external aggression, since those governments seem to be the most keen to abandon the EU embargo? That would cause enormous dismay to Taiwan, which every day faces 600 missiles pointing its heart from the coast of China?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I repeat that I understand the concerns about this matter, because the use of the word "embargo" implies that there is an absolute ban at the moment and that we would move from an absolute ban to a much freer market. The refusals for the export of items on the military list are, more often than not—not always—already made under the EU code. That code has also been adopted by our allies in France and Germany and, therefore, there is no need to draw their particular attention to that matter. However, under our forthcoming EU presidency, the UK Government would like to discuss strengthening in a number of key respects the code which regulates the export of items on the military list throughout the European Union.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that a change in the formal status of EU policy towards arms sales to China is unlikely to produce any real change in what is sold? Will the British Government's plans for strengthening controls on EU arms sales give particular attention to enforcing those controls?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, when this matter was discussed recently at the EU meeting on 16 and 17 December, the extract from the presidency's conclusions underlined that, the result of any decision", on whether or not lift the so-called embargo, should not be an increase of arms exports from EU member states to China, neither in quantitative or qualitative terms". I hope that that is sufficiently explicit to the noble Lord. When I was studying in preparation to answer this Question, I, too, was surprised to learn that the word "embargo" did not mean an absolute ban. That was made explicit in 1998 by the then Minister of State in the Foreign Office, Derek Fatchett, and any of your Lordships who wish to see what was exported to China in 2003 can do so by reading pages 100 and 101 of the report published in June 2004.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the trouble with the Minister's answers is that the Americans say that they understand very well indeed what the embargo implies and they do not like it at all. They have indicated that there will be further blocks on defence technology transfer to British firms. Furthermore, it has been indicated in Congress that the so-called ITAR waiver on the transfer of technology will be indefinitely blocked if the embargo is lifted. Why are we and the French pushing so hard for that? Are there huge, lucrative weapons contracts with China about which we have not been told?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact is that the Minister's answer is a truthful description of the current position. It is possible that, understandably, those in the United States, like many others, have understood the word "embargo" to mean an absolute ban. I am sure that, as a result of my right honourable friend's discussions with his counterparts in the United States, that is now much clearer.

The question of the ITAR waiver must obviously be discussed. However, the noble Lord will know that that has been a matter of difficulty between the United Kingdom and the United States for a very long time. I think it is right that the United Kingdom pursues a foreign policy which it believes to be right, and the noble Lord would be the first to criticise the Government if he believed that we followed a policy only because we thought that that was what the United States wanted us to do.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the reply of the Minister about internal—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we really do have to move on to the final Question.