A European Union delegation of heavy hitters is landing in China Thursday faced with something of a conundrum: How to improve economic ties with Beijing while also tackling the regime over its human rights record, particularly in Tibet.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is leading the high-power delegation, which includes nine EU commissioners, for a two-day visit that is expected to touch on the issues of climate change, investment, trade and human rights. He will face the unenviable task of trying to please European businesses looking to get a stronger foothold in China, while at the same time addressing the concerns of many in Europe about China's deadly crackdown on protesters in Tibet last month.
The meeting had been scheduled long before the strain in EU-China relations caused by the pro-Tibet protests in a number of European capitals during the Olympic torch relay. These led to a wave of anti-Western sentiment throughout China, with calls for boycotts of European goods culminating in protests against French supermarket chain Carrefour last weekend.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has already warned against openly confronting China on Tibet, but on Thursday he also urged Beijing to make it clear it opposes calls for boycotts of European goods. Speaking in Tokyo before departing for China, he said that threats from either side "deepen differences, create massive resentment and make dialogue much harder."
Mandelson will be focusing on reducing frictions over China's big trade surplus. And he is also expected to initiate a High Level Economic and Trade Mechanism, which is designed to make it easier for European companies to invest in China.
Climate change will also be topping the agenda with the EU hoping to persuade one of the world's biggest polluters to commit to globally binding emission reduction targets. The fear is that if China refuses to sign up to a successor deal to the Kyoto Protocol, it will be far more difficult to persuade the United States to do so.
Concerns in China about Shifting European Stance
The toughest task is to go to European Commission President Barroso, who is also expected to raise "matters concerning human rights and freedom of expression," his spokesman confirmed on Monday. And Tibet will be at the forefront of these discussions, particularly after the European Parliament earlier this month urged EU leaders to boycott the Olympic Games opening ceremony unless China opened up dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has called on the EU delegation to use the trip to push for real improvements on human rights, describing it as a "test case" for the EU's rhetoric on the issue. "Such a high level visit 100 days before the start of the Olympics is a crucial opportunity to press the Chinese government to change its tactics," Natalia Olonso of Amnesty said in a statement released on Wednesday. "The EU's commitment to include human rights concerns in all its policies is at stake."
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters on Thursday that the Tibet would definitely be "high" on the agenda. "Of course we understand the sensitivity on sovereignty in China," she said. "But I think it is also fair to ask to respect the Tibetans' culture and also their traditions."
The Chinese are said to be highly concerned at how the tide of European opinion has turned in recent months. Beijing is disappointed "to see the disappearance of a European stance whose principal merit was opposing the United States by taking up positions more favorable to Chinese interests," Valerie Niquet of French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) told the AFP news agency. "Now it is in Europe that public opinion is becoming less and less favorable to China."
And the European country that has born the brunt of this Chinese resentment is France. Relations worsened significantly after the Paris leg of the Olympic relay on April 7, which saw pro-Tibet protesters succeed in interrupting the ceremony, and by President Nicolas Sarkozy's threats to shun the Beijing Games opening ceremony in August. The decision by the Paris City Hall to award the Dalai Lama with honorary citizenship of the city only served to fan the flames of anti-French sentiment in Beijing.
However, Sarkozy has sought to smooth relations by dispatching senior officials to China and sending a message of sympathy to a disabled Chinese athlete who came under attack during the torch relay in Paris. Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is due to hold high level talks in Beijing on Thursday and his comment describing the Paris gesture as a "serious political mistake," has been widely reported by Chinese state media.