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EU/China: Trade Dispute Resolved, Concerns Over Beijing’s Rights Record Remain

Tony Blair acknowledged EU-China trade is rarely smooth sailing The annual summit between the EU and China in Beijing today (Monday) has ended with a deal over the main subject of contention: what to do about the thousands of items of Chinese clothing that have piled up in European seaports in excess of import quotas. But clothes were not the only item on the agenda. The two sides also discussed Beijing’s human rights record.

Prague, 5 September 2005 (RFE/RL) – Some 75 million items of Chinese-made clothing -- including sweaters, T-shirts, trousers, blouses, and bras -- are currently being held by customs in European seaports.

They have been there since the EU reintroduced import quota on Chinese goods in June to protect European clothing producers from fierce competition from Chinese manufacturers.

What to do about those mounds of clothing was the major issue facing British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chinese officials as they met during the annual EU-China summit in Beijing today. Britain currently heads the rotating EU presidency.

Now, the uneasy negotiations appear to have ended happily. The European Commission in Brussels said the two sides had reached a deal to unblock the garments so they can be claimed by European retailers who ordered them before the renewed import quotas took effect.

Speaking to journalists in Beijing, Blair acknowledged that trade between EU and China is not always a smooth business.

The textile pile-up, for example, symbolizes a host of issues stemming from European manufacturer’s charges that low-cost Chinese industries are undercutting their livelihood. It also illustrates the EU’s difficulties in finding workable solutions to that problem.

But Blair said it was important to further expand trade between the EU and China despite such difficulties. "As our trade increases, there will, as we have seen over the issue of textiles, from time to time, there will be disagreements," he said. "The important thing is to resolve those disagreements and then continue to increase the trade between China and Europe."

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also sought to put the problems in the past. "So far, the problem of textiles between China and Europe is temporary," Wen said. "It should not have any negative effects on this positive and rapidly developing relationship. In order to solve the problem we need to approach it from a strategic point of view, with goodwill and wisdom."

The dispute over the textiles was a clash of interests between European consumers, major retailers, and EU textile producers.

Some European countries like Spain, Greece, Italy, France, and Portugal say their textile industries have been hammered by cheap Chinese goods and had put strong pressure on Brussels to not let the clothes blocked in EU seaports enter the European market.

But European retailers said that if the clothes they ordered were not released, there would be clothing shortages on the European market and that could trigger price hikes for consumers.

The issue was a serious test for Blair, who is known as a supporter of free trade between Europe and Asia’s booming economies. The EU is China’s No.1 trading partner, while China is the block’s second-largest after the United States.

The EU-China summit also discussed climate change, the EU arms embargo, and Beijing’s human rights record.

International human rights groups have urged the EU to press China to improve its rights record. In open letters to the EU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on Brussels to maintain a 1989 arms embargo against Beijing until it makes concrete progress.

Olivier Schott of the EU Office of Amnesty International told RFE/RL from Brussels: “Amnesty International has been pressing, for a long time now, the EU to push China to improve its human rights record. The question is the following: the EU’s arms embargo in China has been imposed as a response to the crackdown of the pro-democracy movement in June 1989. We welcome that since last May the EU has put forward certain suggestions on human rights reforms in China. But on the other hand, we keep pressing for having concrete reforms in China.”

The EU implemented the arms embargo after the Chinese military crushed the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests, killing hundreds, if not thousands of unarmed students and protesters.

Amnesty International's EU Office also said China must release individuals still held in prison in connection with the pro-democracy movement of 1989, ease media censorship, and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.