Sino-EU relations on rocky road to recovery

Sino-EU relations on rocky road to recovery

ANDREW WILLIS, 17.03.2009, EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Securing good political relations between the European Union and the Peoples' Republic of China is not something that can be achieved overnight. One is a heterogeneous hotchpotch of democratically elected governments, the other, a one-party state where criticism of the communist leadership is rarely tolerated.

Great Wall - EU-China relations hit a rocky patch over Tibet (Photo: EUobserver)

Nevertheless, the two sides had made great strides towards deepening ties until a cancelled summit last December seemed to undo much of the progress.

The decision was prompted by French president Nicholas Sarkozy's decision to meet with the Dali Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, towards the end of last year, at a time when France held the rotating presidency of the council of ministers.

At the time, European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, expressed his frustration by saying: "frankly there was no reason for this decision."

Things have improved since then, helped in part by the economic crisis says Belgian liberal MEP, Dirk Sterckx, who heads the European Parliament's delegation to China.

"I think things are getting better," he told EUobserver in an interview. "Everybody realises that this is not a time to quarrel but a time to work together."

Indeed 2009 may see a record two EU-China summits taking place, one planned for the second half of May under the Czech presidency and a possible second one under the Swedish presidency in the latter half of the year.

The ongoing negotiations to upgrade formal relations between the two sides, currently governed by the 1985 Trade and Cooperation Agreement, to a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), are a sign of good diplomatic health.

"It is something formal but it is a very clear signal on how far you want to go as partners," Mr Sterckx says of the PCA. "I think it would be a bad thing if these talks collapsed."

"Of course it takes time because it's a difficult negotiation. If you want to have this kind of agreement you bring your collaboration one step higher which means that you don't just talk about trade. You also talk about political subjects."


Despite the economic crisis pushing the two sides closer together, one political subject in particular continues to frustrate the drive for better relations.

Last Thursday, MEPs adopted a resolution urging the Chinese government to resume talks with the Dali Lama's representatives and negotiate a "positive, meaningful change in Tibet," not ruling out autonomy for the region.

The move has gone down very badly with the Chinese. "They are cross about our position," says Mr Sterckx of the EP resolution designed to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Tibet uprising against Chinese rule that resulted in the Dali Lami's exile to India.

"I hope we can come closer to a negotiated agreement in Tibet, but the Chinese say there is no agreement to be made. You have these two views and it's very difficult to get a good discussion about this, it makes them very nervous," he said.

The Dalai Lama's envoys released a memorandum on autonomy, which was presented to Chinese officials during the latest and eighth round of dialogue last November in Beijing.

Last week's European Parliament resolution called on the Chinese government to consider the memorandum as a basis for discussions and equally called on the Czech presidency to adopt a similar declaration.

"I would be surprised [if they do]," Mr Sterckx added.


Such is the debate on Tibet that one issue normally guaranteed to raise political hackles has received little attention in recent months. China's defense spending rose by 17.6 percent last year, but the EU appears unconcerned by this.

"If you look at military spending, it is of course growing in China but it is at a much lower level than for instance that of the United States," says Mr Sterckx, who also points to the very low number of Chinese soldiers on foreign soil.

"I hope that we don't get into an arms race as that would be a very useless thing to do. But of course there is the historical frustration of China having lost over the last two hundred years a large part of its territory to people who were militarily stronger than they were."

Despite this hang-up, he feels the Chinese move is this area is not a threat to Europe. "It is difficult to get information on this but, as far as I read, they are using a lot of the money to modernize rather than to expand their forces," he explained.