Burmese regime hangs heavy over EU-China summit

Burmese regime hangs heavy over EU-China summit

ANDREW WILLIS, 18.05.2009, EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – Wednesday's summit between the European Union and China was intended to be a classic fence-mending showpiece, a sign of good relations between the two regions and a chance to talk-up co-operation in the face of the economic crisis, but events last week complicated the issue.

Unlike the West, China did not condemn the Burmese junta's crackdown on protests in 2007 that were led by the country's Buddhist monks. (Photo: Racoles)

On Thursday, Burma's Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, was charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest and now faces the prospect of five years in prison.

The country's military junta allege an American swam across the lake that borders Ms Kyi's bungalow and spent two nights inside.

This week Ms Kyi – considered by many in Europe to be a political hero - will go on trial, with the surrounding publicity likely to push the issue of Burma and human rights in general further up the EU-China summit agenda.

While much of the meeting's discussion will focus on the standard issues of trade and investment and the global response to the economic crisis, the EU is likely to press Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to increase pressure on its neighbour with which it has extensive trade ties.

"As long as China holds its protective hand over Myanmar (Burma) nothing will be done," a European commission official for external relations told EUobserver.

The West has not forgotten the junta's 2007 crackdown on the widespread protests in the country that were led by Buddhist monks and is well aware that the region's powerhouse, China, remains the key to bringing pressure to bear on the military regime.

Representing the EU at Wednesday's summit will be Czech president Vaclav Klaus, commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The Czech Republic currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the council of ministers that represents EU member state governments.

Adding to pressure for discussion on human rights, Czech MPs from the Greens party petitioned Mr Klaus last week to raise the issue of Ms Kyi's release at the summit, as well as the ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet.

"None of the current global challenges that the world faces can be dealt without cooperation between the EU and China. But at the same time the EU cannot keep silent to the violation of human rights in China," Greens MP Katerina Jacques told Czech media.

On Tibet however, both sides are likely to trot out their previous positions and then move on to other topics say commission officials.

As well as Burma, EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday will discuss a number of other countries where China holds significant influence, aware that Chinese support can make or break international sanctions and greatly shape global opinion.

China for instance has been instrumental in mollifying international criticism of civilian causalities in Sri Lanka say analysts, also supplying the Sri Lankan government with much of its firepower in its 25-year struggle against the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country that appears to be drawing to a close.

In return China has gained access to an important Sri Lankan port, perched on the edge of a major international shipping route.

Klaus complicates climate discussions

The EU-China summit also provides an opportunity for the two sides to discuss climate change in the lead up to the Copenhagen summit this December where environment ministers from across the globe will attempt to thrash out a successor to the current Kyoto protocol.

One of the more prickly issues is what contribution developing countries such as China will make towards limiting world CO2 emissions in the future and how much financial support they should receive from developed nations in exchange.

While Wednesday is too early to discuss potential EU financial contributions, the commission is keen to push the idea of increased clean energy use in China, a country where economic growth and energy consumption are set to increase in the coming years.

Indeed, an agreement on clean energy is one of the potential documents that may come out of Wednesday's summit but complicating discussions is the fact that Mr Klaus, who will chair the meeting, denies that global warming is a man-made phenomenon.

While commission spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann says there is little worry of Mr Klaus hijacking discussions, others are less sure.

"I don't agree with him on the issue [of climate change] but I think its fair to say that he has a much more informed view than most politicians at that level in the sense that he can talk about the details," says Fredrik Erixon, director of the European centre for international political economy, a Brussels-based think-tank.

"It will be an interesting situation when the issue of climate change comes up and probably some of the Chinese delegation will be very happy to see Vaclav Klaus chairing the discussion," he says.

Market economy status

A number of issues of keen interest to one side or the other are unlikely to get more than a passing reference on Wednesday.

These include the Chinese desire to achieve "market economy" status from the EU before 2014, after which they will automatically qualify.

The EU however is reluctant to give in, as recognizing China as a market economy would constrain the amount of anti-dumping cases it can take against the large Asian country.

"China is extremely annoyed at that, and they look at it as a real snub," says Mr Erixon.

Likewise any serious discussion on lifting a EU arms embargo on China or China's call for a new international reserve currency is unlikely.