The EU banned arms sales to China in 1990 in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre a year earlier. But this did not stop arms manufacturers from eight of the bloc's 25 members exporting military equipment to the world's most populous country last year.
"The figures seem to make a bit of a mockery of the European Union's claim that the arms embargo is still in place," said Roy Isbister of the London-based advocacy group Saferworld.
"The spirit of the 1990 statement is that military goods should not be exported to China, but member states are interpreting this in very different ways."
France, which has lobbied aggressively for the arms embargo to be lifted, would be by far the biggest beneficiary of such a move.
According to Council of Ministers figures, $81 million of the $86 million worth of military goods exported from the European Union were sold by French companies. It also ranks first in terms of the value of export licenses issued by governments, with orders totaling $202 million given the green light last year.
Britain, which is lukewarm about lifting the embargo, came in at second place, with over $175 million of licenses granted to its companies.
Governments have been able to bypass the embargo because the 1990 ruling is non-binding and only applies to weapons systems, not components or so-called "dual use goods" that have both military and civilian uses.
"The European Union does not have an arms embargo to speak of at this moment," says Tomas Valasek, Director of the Brussels office of the World Security Institute think-tank. "Each EU member state is left to its own devices about how to interpret the embargo -- which can lead to some strange situations. Some of the biggest proponents of lifting the ban, for example Germany, sell nothing to China; whereas some of the biggest opponents -- the British, for example -- sell more than anyone except the French."
France and Germany last year pushed for the arms embargo against Beijing to be lifted, stating that China had moved on from Tiananmen Square days. Most European states appeared to back the move, but after fierce resistance from the United States, the issue was quietly shelved.
"It is quite clear that the main reason the embargo is still in place is because of the United States," says Isbister.
The annual report from the Council of Ministers, which represents EU governments in Brussels, also reveals that European arms makers were granted licenses to sell $4.3 million of military goods to Uzbekistan in 2004.
Last month the Union placed an arms embargo on the Central Asian republic in protest of the massacre of demonstrators in Andijan.
EU governments also granted arms manufacturers licenses to sell almost $143 million worth of military goods to Venezuela and $48 million to Iran -- two countries Washington is less than keen to see armed to the teeth with the latest military hardware.
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