Ashton boat trip seen as new chapter in China relations

12.07.12 @ 12:17

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton believes Beijing is ready to step up co-operation after a meeting with her Chinese counterpart.

  • Terracotta army. European diplomat: 'They rolled out the red carpet for us' (Photo: WSK_2005)

Her assessment comes after Dai Bingguo, a top-level Chinese foreign policy official, earlier this week invited her on a 20-minute-long boat trip on a lake in the Chinese capital.

Dai rarely meets with foreign delegates directly, preferring instead to make brief appearances in the margins of summits, a European diplomat told EUobserver.

The Chinese also let Ashton choose the date for the next China-EU summit, to be held in autumn - a "gift" in terms of Chinese protocol.

For her part, Ashton in a statement on Tuesday (10 July) said she hoped Dai would stay at the heart of Chinese politics: "As I know that there are changes coming in China in terms of leadership, I want to ... [say] what a personal pleasure it has been to work with state councillor Dai Bingguo and to wish him very well for the future."

"They rolled out the red carpet for us. It was charm diplomacy ... Now we are getting into the meat and drink of what our foreign policy co-operation should be about," the European diplomat noted.

He said Ashton and Dai discussed the EU debt crisis, Iran's nuclear programme, cyber-security and EU training of Chinese naval officers to help protect Chinese shipping in the Somalia piracy zone.

He added that China did not ask Ashton to lift the EU arms embargo or to grant it market economy status, a decision which would help China export cheap products - two traditional sore points in relations.

Meanwhile, Ashton's official joint communique with China did not mention human rights.

It said instead the "strategic partnership" should be based on "mutual respect" and that the EU supports China's "territorial integrity."

The diplomatic language is a way of saying the EU should refrain from public criticism of the Chinese police state and from support for the Dalai Lama, the leader in exile of Tibet, which wants greater autonomy.

Kenneth Roth, the head of the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch, tweeted on Tuesday that the communique betrays Ashton's stated foreign policy values.

But the European diplomat said concessions in public statements make China more open to criticism behind closed doors.

"They would prefer us not to talk about human rights at all," the contact said.

"We're saying that if China moves to a science and innovation-based economy, allowing people freedom of expression and democracy, it's not just 'nice,' it's crucial for the future of their country. We're trying to promote human rights in Chinese terms."

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