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EU: Chinese Prime Minister Visits Brussels

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is visiting the European Commission in Brussels today. EU officials stress that, coming less than a month after Commission President Romano Prodi visited Beijing, Wen's trip highlights the rapidly growing rapprochement between the bloc and China.

Brussels, 6 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The sizable Chinese delegation headed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will spend an overall 10 days touring Europe between 2 May and 12 May.

Apart from Brussels, the Chinese delegation will also visit Germany, Italy, Britain and Ireland. However, it is the Brussels phase of the trip that highlights the importance both sides accord to improving ties.

The only significant area where the EU and China fail to see eye to eye is the bloc's arms embargo against Beijing.
Emma Udwin, a European Commission spokeswoman, told RFE/RL that discussions today will span a wide range of issues. "The relationship between the EU and China is in a very dynamic phase,” she said. “We have had an important exchange of strategy documents, and we are moving forward and diversifying our relationship progressively. I think that important agreements are going to be signed tomorrow [7 May] on customs cooperation, trade cooperation, textiles and a further agreement to consolidate the agreement we already have with China on the Galileo [satellite] navigation system. In addition to that, we'll be discussing international issues. Iraq, Burma (Myanmar), and a number of regional questions may come up, as well."

EU officials in Brussels take every opportunity to stress the fact that China chose the EU last October as the subject of its first-ever policy paper on an outside power. Equally, the EU has adopted a policy document on China, last updated in September. Both recognize the other as a major partner with a shared interest in international decision making revolving around a strengthened United Nations.

The EU has avoided confrontation on most issues of major concern for Beijing. It pursues a "one China" policy, ruling out independent recognition for Taiwan. On Tibet, the EU calls for "genuine autonomy," while China says it encourages EU support for the region's economic, cultural, and social development.

EU officials say the bloc "systematically" raises China's human rights record at bilateral meetings, pressing for greater political and civil freedoms. However, they also point to the complexity of the EU-China relationship and rule out the "conditionality" of progress in other areas based on improvements in human rights.

Another sign of a developing strategic partnership is China signing up to the EU's global-positioning system known as Galileo. EU officials emphasize, though, that Chinese involvement will remain purely civilian and will not extend to the potential military applications of the project.

The only significant area where the EU and China fail to see eye to eye is the bloc's arms embargo against Beijing. EU officials say China has made it clear it considers the lifting of the embargo its foremost policy objective in relations with the EU. Chinese arguments are said to revolve around the symbolic value of the move, and EU officials say Beijing has played down its interest in actual weapons acquisition.

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said little headway is expected on the issue at today's meeting at the European Commission. This is partly because the commission is not empowered to make such decisions, and partly because of an internal debate within the EU on whether a voluntary "code of conduct" currently in force is sufficiently strict.

"We have not adopted a firm position in this debate, which depends largely on an ongoing analysis of a number of issues, notably the reliability and strength of the code of conduct managed by the [EU] Council [of Ministers], which does not concern the European Commission. The discussion is about the code of conduct -- the use for the weapons -- and whether the code functions properly, [or] whether it needs to be reinforced. These are questions which will obviously influence the position of the European Union on the issue of lifting the arms embargo on China," Udwin said.

EU officials have said in recent weeks they do not expect a decision on lifting the embargo before the end of June

Both the EU and China are also major trading partners. The bloc's trade deficit with China -- amounting to 55 billion euros ($66 billion) last year -- is the largest with any outside partner. The 10 new member states add another 8 billion euros.

Although officials say the EU is keen to improve the balance of its imports and exports, they rule out appeals to the World Trade Organization for sanctions. Rather, officials say, the bloc would prefer that Beijing create more opportunities for its firms in the Chinese market.

The most pressing short-term trade concern the EU will raise today is the export restrictions China is placing on coke, the industrial fuel, which the bloc's steel mills badly need.