Sat, May 08, 2004 - Page 1 News List

EU tells China to improve rights, then ask for arms

SIGNIFICANT SYMBOL The president of the European Commission told the Chinese premier that all 25 EU countries must agree to lift the ban


The EU on Thursday refused to lift its ban on arms sales to China amid ongoing concerns about human-rights abuses and a crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

But Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, did sign new agreements to boost expanding trade ties and pledged to deepen relations.

Wen, who went to Brussels with a 100-strong delegation, tried but failed to secure an end to the arms embargo imposed after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

"We have expressed the hope that the EU will lift its arms embargo and give us the status of a market economy," he said, adding that trade and human rights issues should not be linked.

Prodi said that any lifting of the ban would have to be agreed by all 25 EU member states. France and Germany are both keen to sell sophisticated weapons to China and argue that the issue is now of purely symbolic significance.

EU trade is handled by the commission, but foreign policy proper remains in the hands of national governments -- one of the union's peculiarities that its partners find puzzling and frustrating.

Britain, concerned about limits on democracy in Hong Kong, is against ending the embargo. So is the US, which accuses Beijing of backsliding on human rights and says sales could upset the strategic balance in east Asia.

Wen, who is a modernizing reformer, has already visited Germany and heads for Italy, Britain and Ireland before returning home next week. China sees a strong EU as a useful political and economic counterbalance to the US.

Wen insisted China was making progress on human rights and reiterated a promise to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.

The European Trade Union Confederation accused China yesterday of taking advantage of a liberal global trade regime "by systematically exploiting its workers and violating their human and labor rights."

But the latest trade and customs agreements attest to the great importance attached by both sides to their economic relationship.

Five EU commissioners have visited Beijing in the past few months while more than 100 staff in Brussels now work on China-related issues.

"EU-China relations have dramatically intensified over the past few decades," the European commissioner said.

China is the European Union's second-largest trading partner, with a rise of 44 percent last year reflecting soaring domestic growth, now faster than growth in trade with the US and Japan.

The customs cooperation deal -- designed to help EU and Chinese agencies work together -- aims to combat piracy of goods estimated to cost Western companies US$16 billion in sales each year.

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