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16th Sep 2019

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EU-China diplomacy fails to convince sceptics

  • Mr Barroso (l) meets Mr Wen in Beijing (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Some analysts doubt whether China sees the EU as an important player on the world stage despite Europe's diplomatic charm offensive.

"The EU-China strategic partnership is a partnership in name only. On many of the big issues that we have been observing in the last couple of years - climate change, financial regulation, nuclear proliferation, the Iran crisis - China has not treated the EU as a key strategic partner," Mathieu Duchatel, an analyst at the Asia Centre in France's Sciences Po university, told EUobserver.

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"The EU has not been able to transform its economic relations with China into any political leverage," he added. "There are very few countries which can influence China. The only country that has succeeded in recent years is the US."

Mr Duchatel's pessimistic remarks come in a week designed to showcase EU-China diplomacy.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao on Thursday (29 April) in Beijing. The 50-strong EU delegation also included EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and several EU commissioners and will on Friday take part in the launch of Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is at the same time in China with his celebrity wife and will also attend the expo ceremony after visiting tourist attractions, such as the Terracotta Army.

Mr Wen said after the Barroso meeting that he will ensure a level-playing field for EU and Chinese companies on the Chinese market. Beijing also told Ms Ashton it is open to targeted UN sanctions against Iran and it set up a new "hotline" between EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard and her Chinese counterpart. It told EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht that it will not bow to outside pressure on the value of the yuan, however.

For his part, Mr Barroso said: "The bilateral relationship is strong, and the EU-China strategic partnership is even more relevant in an increasingly globalised world."

He added that there are "no taboos in our discussions," referring to EU concerns about China's repression of political dissidents. An EU official in Brussels said Mr Barroso had planned to mention three cases by name to Mr Wen - Hu Jia, Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng - but it is unclear if he did or not, as the names did not come up in any of the press events in China.

The spokesman for the Chinese embassy to the EU, Wang Xining, said the EU is "quite well known" in Chinese society and media but that its post-Lisbon Treaty structure is unclear: "It's complicated. It's a learning process. We are still in the process of identifying the real functions of all the EU figures."

Turning the page

Mr Wang said it would be a good idea for the EU to expand personnel at its delegation in China and disagreed with the Asia Centre's suggestion that Beijing and Washington do not see Brussels as an equal partner.

"That's not true. The EU is a major player in the world and we want our relationship to grow. It's our number one trading partner. There's a strong relationship despite some differences in the past," he said.

The EU presence at Expo 2010 stands in contrast to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which saw several EU leaders stay away from the opening ceremony due to human rights concerns. EU-Chinese relations also suffered when Mr Sarkozy met with Tibet's leader-in-exile the Dalai Lama the same year.

"We have turned that page," Mr Wang said.

The Asia Center's Mr Duchatel is not so sure. Pointing to China's execution of British citizen Akmal Shaikh on drugs charges in December 2009 despite high-level appeals from London and Brussels, he said the death was designed to send a message to the outside world.

"It was a strong symbolic statement of sovereignty in judicial matters. It was not just based on law. There was a political dimension, targeting international opinion," Mr Duchatel said.

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MEPs and China mark change in relationship

Members of the five big political groups in the European Parliament have met with members of the one big political group in the National People's Congress of China, in what has been described as a “changing” and "very friendly" climate.

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