THE HAGUE -- The European Union and China agreed to boost relations yesterday, but the EU made clear there can be no early lifting of its 15-year-old arms embargo until Beijing improves its human rights record.
The EU and China also signed a declaration in which both commit to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction by keeping them out of the hands of terrorists and rogue governments.
''The illicit trade of WMD-related materials, equipment and technology is a matter of serious concern for China and the EU," the declaration said.
The EU's ban on arms sales to China was imposed after the bloody 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square prodemocracy protests.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country holds the EU presidency, said he told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that the 25-nation bloc would consider lifting the ban, but made clear continuing reports of human rights abuses in China made that an iffy prospect.
He said he made clear to Wen that Europe had lingering concerns about human rights in China. ''It is good to know exactly what the other side thinks about some issues; for example, human rights. . . . I am very pleased with the conversation we had."
Balkenende also said the EU will consider tightening its code of conduct for arms sales, which proponents of ending the ban see as a safety net if and when arms sales are resumed.
''I am very pleased with the frank conversation we had about this [and also] the human rights issue," Balkenende said at a news conference with Wen.
The largely voluntary code of conduct forces EU nations to ensure the weapons they sell are not used for internal repression, external aggression, or where serious violations of human rights have occurred.
Balkenende and Wen signed more than a half-dozen agreements, covering closer cooperation in science and technology, customs, and student exchanges. They also signed a declaration committing to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The meeting underscored the phenomenal growth in two-way trade that rocketed to $202 billion last year, double the 1999 figure. In 1980, China ranked 25th on the EU's list of most important trade partners. This year, it is the EU's second most important partner, after the United States, according to EU figures.
Wen acknowledged that differences of human rights and the arms ban weigh heavily on his nation's relationship with Europe, but added it ''does not prevent us from having a bilateral relationship."