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24th Mar 2019

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China seeks high-tech weapons, 'respect' on EU visit

  • Li in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year (Photo: World Economic Forum)

China has highlighted access to arms technology and less criticism on human rights as two priorities on a visit to the EU capital by its new-leader-in-waiting, Li Keqiang.

The country's ambassador to the EU, Wu Hailong, in a statement circulated to press ahead of Li's arrival on Tuesday (2 May), said the two sides "must respect each other" and "properly handle and manage [their] differences" in order for relations to "prosper."

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For his part, Li in an op-ed in the Financial Times on 1 May noted they should "strive to build an equal partnership of mutual respect and trust." He added that "relaxing control over high-tech exports is ... conducive to strengthening China-EU economic ties."

Human rights "differences" between China and the EU came to the foreground in recent days over the case of Chen Guangcheng.

The blind activist last week fled house arrest and took shelter in the US embassy in China. The EU delegation in Beijing in a communique on 30 April urged authorities to "exercise utmost restraint" in its handling of the diplomatic crisis and to stop harrassing Chen's family members.

In what is becoming standard practice on high-level Chinese visits, EU institutions have not planned any press events during Li's three-day-long stay in the EU capital, ensuring that there are no embarassing questions for their guest.

A Chinese diplomat told EUobserver on Tuesday morning the Chen problem will definitely come up in behind-closed-talks, however. He added that Li's remark on high-tech exports refers "mostly" to the EU arms embargo on China, in place since the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Li is expected to become China's next leader in 2013. His European tour saw him visit Moscow and Budapest earlier in the week. The 56-year-old Chinese first vice premier met US President Barack Obama in Washington in February.

Other niggling problems in EU-China ties include CO2 emissions, China's alleged dumping of under-priced products on EU markets and its own restrictions on exports of "rare earths" - a set of 17 minerals, such as praseodymium or yttrium, used by EU countries in the manufacture of electronic equipment.

The state-linked newspaper China Daily in an article on Tuesday cited an "official source" as saying that "Beijing is keen on negotiating with Brussels on the market economy status issue. But if the cost is too high, Beijing will not accept the conditions."

If the EU grants China market economy status, it will give it less leeway to impose so-called "anti-dumping" measures on cheap Chinese exports. On rare earths, the EU filed a fresh complaint with the World Trade Organisation last month. Meanwhile, China has joined a league of countries - together with India, Russia and the US - trying to scupper an EU law forcing foreign airlines to pay a CO2 tax on flights in and out of Europe.

Li's Financial Times op-ed envisaged future economic ties based on continuing mass-scale exports to Europe. "When 'designed in Europe' is combined with 'made in China' and when European technologies are applied to the Chinese market, there will be amazing results," he said.

He added that Beijing is ready to do more to "make a joint contribution to addressing the issue of Europe's sovereign debt" - a reference to EU requests for Chinese money for EU and International Monetary Fund bail-out mechanisms.

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