Wishful thinking in Europe

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 December, 2004, 12:00am

China and the European Union will hold their seventh summit today in The Hague as both sides work to strengthen their already close relationship.

Important agreements, on science and technology, customs co-operation, non-proliferation and arms control, are expected to be signed.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who will pay an official visit to the Netherlands, is due to meet senior EU officials, including Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission, and Javier Solana, secretary-general of the EU Council.

However, China is unlikely to get its key wish: the lifting of an arms embargo that has been in place ever since the crushing of the pro-democracy student movement in Tiananmen Square 15 years ago. While major EU members, such as France and Germany, have been pushing for this, EU procedures require such a decision to be unanimous.

The Dutch foreign minister, Bernard Bot, said last month that the EU would give China a 'signal' during the summit.

'We are ready to give a positive signal as far as the lifting of the embargo is concerned,' he said. 'But there remain a number of ... conditions which we have put forward considering the human rights situation.' The Netherlands currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Chinese officials insist that they have made 'tremendous progress' in human rights in recent years and say that if there are differences, then they should be discussed within human rights dialogues, of which 17 have been held, but should not be linked to the arms embargo.

There are signs that China may release some political prisoners in the hope of mollifying its critics. In April, a prominent labour leader, Chen Gang , was freed three years earlier than scheduled. Then, late last month, Liu Jingsheng , a leading dissident and pro-democracy campaigner, was released after more than a decade in prison.

There is also a report that Wu Shishen , a former Xinhua editor sentenced to life imprisonment for leaking former president Jiang Zemin's 1992 speech to a party congress, may be released next year.

Officials in Washington have opposed lifting the embargo, arguing on human rights grounds but also saying that it could upset the balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait. China has called the embargo a relic of the cold war and argued that it is an obstacle to closer ties with the EU.

The Europeans are hoping to have in place a binding code of conduct on arms exports before lifting the embargo. The thinking is that after the embargo is lifted, member states would still have to adhere to a code whereby no sales of arms would be made if they are likely to be used for domestic repression or to violate human rights.

Aside from action on the arms embargo, China is also asking the EU to accord it the formal status of a market economy, which would strengthen the country's ability to contest charges of dumping under World Trade Organisation rules.

However, this seems unlikely, since a recent preliminary EU report concluded that China is not yet a 'full market economy' but remains a non-market economy still dependent on a planned economic system.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is said to have suggested that the EU, instead of lifting the embargo early, should concentrate on granting China 'market economy' status. However, this was reportedly opposed by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

As a result, despite a show of goodwill and the signing of a slew of agreements, the summit may well prove disappointing for China. But trade between the two continues to increase, and China is now the EU's biggest trading partner after the United States.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator