That has changed.
Speaking yesterday before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU
external relations commissioner, said China's economic growth could spell trouble in the future.
"Unlike in Europe in the [latter] half of the 1980s, economic ties have not resulted in improved political relations," she said. "On the contrary, the economic rise of China and its assertive foreign policy have fanned concerns in some neighboring countries that a more prosperous China could use its economic gains to pursue its national interests more forcefully, and also dominate the region both politically and economically."
Ferrero-Waldner said rising nationalism across Southeast Asia -- affecting not only China but also South Korea and Japan -- may create bilateral conflicts there.
Referring to the recent anti-Japan riots in China, the commissioner said Beijing is using nationalism as a unifying
issue as the power of communism recedes.
Still, such concerns are not likely to dampen the EU's long-term view of Beijing as an important strategic partner. This view has caused consternation in the United States, which views Beijing as a competitor.
Washington has relentlessly attacked EU plans, announced last December, to give up the arms embargo, which was imposed on China after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square.
But Brussels appears to have backtracked on that pledge.
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU takes seriously concerns that a resurgent China could destabilize the region. The commissioner briefly discussed the embargo, but gave no sign the bloc was proceeding with plans to resume arms sales anytime soon: "On the arms embargo, the European Council Conclusions of December 2005 clearly stipulate that there should not be any change in the quantity or quality of arms exports to China. Therefore, any possible future decision on a lifting should not alter the security situation in East Asia."
Douglas Alexander, the new British minister for Europe, also spoke in Strasbourg. Britain currently holds the rotating EU
Alexander said China's human rights record remains a serious concern: "The European Union continues to have serious concerns about human rights in China, such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. Journalists, lawyers, and members of NGOs continue to be harassed. The death penalty continued to be used extensively. There is widespread administrative detention and we have serious concerns about the use of torture. The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang remains a concern."
Officials also criticized China's recent decision to adopt a law authorizing use of force against the autonomous island
province of Taiwan if it formally declares independence.
But both Ferrero-Waldner and Alexander said that closer ties with China remain an EU priority. A summit meeting is scheduled for this autumn to set the framework for future EU-China relations.
The EU also hopes to be able to use China's regional influence to help lower tensions on the Korean peninsula between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Brussels is also looking to maintain strong trade relations, despite recent disputes over textiles and footwear.