In tacit opposition to U.S. dominance, the EU is seeking a "multilateral" world, and China is seen as one of its key strategic partners.
Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, told RFE/RL today that the EU-China partnership is a modern and dynamic one.
"We're in a very dynamic moment in our relationship with China," Udwin said. "The relationship is growing, visibly, before our eyes from one that started out as pretty much an exclusively trade relationship into one that covers all the elements of a modern partnership -- the political aspects, the trade aspects, of course, remain important. But also a number of the more sensitive issues that we all have to face up to -- nonproliferation, the fight against terrorism, human rights -- [which] we discuss with China -- and difficult areas in the region, like Burma/Myanmar."
It usually takes some prompting for EU officials to address the key issue in their partnership with China -- the continued EU ban on arms sales to the country. Viewed from Beijing, the embargo is the main obstacle to taking the partnership to new levels, although both sides have already acknowledged each other as "strategic" partners.
China has lobbied hard to have the embargo -- imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 -- lifted. It says the ban is anachronistic, considering advances in bilateral ties since 1989.
Udwin told RFE/RL that the EU does not think the embargo is an obstacle. She said the EU will be sending a "positive signal" to China at the summit -- but is not yet ready to lift the ban:
"We don't see it as an obstacle," Udwin said. "We expect...to be giving a positive signal to the Chinese about our willingness to work towards a lifting of the arms embargo, [but] that's not the same thing as saying that there is a decision to lift it right now."
Officials say they expect China to reiterate its position tomorrow.
The EU, on its part, will point to problems that remain. These are twofold. The EU will first need to work out a more rigorous voluntary "code of conduct" for arms sales, and China needs to improve its human rights record. Bowing to Chinese sensitivities, EU officials are loath to call either a condition for ending the embargo. However, both are necessary before the embargo can be lifted.
Udwin said the reinforced "code of conduct" for arms sales does not only affect China, although it will contain specific provisions for cases where embargoes have been recently dropped: "There is one area where we want to work further internally. That is to say, we have a code of conduct that governs all arms exports all over the word, not just to China, and there is work under way to reinforce it, to strengthen it, and to look at how we can make a better transition when a country moves out of one category into a more positive political situation where one can consider arms exports."
Officials in Brussels say a new code may be in place before the end of the year.
The United States, which is lobbying hard for the EU not to remove the embargo, has said it will follow closely any conditions attached to possible arms sales to China. Conversely to the EU, the United States sees China as a strategic competitor and has warned it could retaliate with sanctions against the EU.
Both the EU and China have repeatedly stated that a lifting of the arms embargo would not lead to increased arms sales.
The other issue preventing the lifting of the ban on arms sales is China's human rights record.
Again, Udwin said it is not a formal precondition.
"The other thing that we've said is that the arms embargo was imposed in the wake of Tiananmen Square, and the European public opinion is still very conscious of the human rights violations that took place then. And we've said to our Chinese friends [that] it would help us very much to take this decision if they could demonstrate through some concrete steps improvements in the human rights in China," Udwin said. "Now, that is not the same thing as setting formal conditions. But we have given them a clear signal that it would help us to help them if we could see some concrete steps."
One step China has indicated it might soon take is the ratification of a UN convention on political and civil rights. But one EU official said yesterday that "this alone won't do the trick" and that the EU wants to see progress "across the board." China's standard counterargument is that the EU approach glosses over strengthening social and economic rights as an essential goal.
A number of human rights issues will be raised at the summit, among them the question of Tibet. One EU official said earlier this week that China is reluctant to discuss the issue, but added that the EU will insist.
The topic of Taiwan, which is holding elections this weekend, will also be raised. The EU adheres to a "one-China policy," but will urge Beijing to aim for dialogue and to refrain from provocations.
China is also looking for the easing of the EU visa regime for certain categories of officials, such as diplomats. The EU, in turn, hopes that China will agree to open talks for a readmission treaty for illegal immigrants. China has so far not signed any such treaty with another country.
Trade issues will also feature prominently. China is the EU's biggest trading partner, after the United States, and enjoys a huge trade surplus vis-a-vis the bloc. EU officials say the bloc might ask China to agree to limit its textile exports when the EU removes import quotas at the beginning of 2005.