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A new EU approach to China?

By Dick Leonard.

This year's EU-China summit, scheduled for 8-9 September, in Helsinki, may well see a determined effort from the EU side to put the relationship on a new footing. Both trade commissioner Peter Mandelson, and his external relations colleague, Benita Waldner-Ferrero, have been conducting fundamental policy reviews which are likely to lead to a proposal to replace the 1985 agreement, which has hitherto governed relations between the two sides.

Instead, the EU representatives at Helsinki, led by Finnish premier Matti Vanhanen and Commission president Jose-Manuel Barroso seem set to propose a new and much more ambitious Partnership and Co-operation Agreement.

On the trade side, the EU is seeking the establishment of a permanent joint trade and investment committee, a high level financial forum linking the European Central Bank with the Chinese central bank and a high level dialogue on industrial policy between the European Commission and the Chinese Vice-Premier responsible for industrial policy.

On the political side, the main objective is to tie China in more closely with multilateral agreements in many fields, which may have an attraction for an ultra-cautious Chinese leadership deeply alarmed by American unilateralism, and anxious to counter fears that it sees itself as a hegemonic power.

In the past, the EU has perhaps not maximised the leverage – by way of both carrots and sticks – which it could apply to the Chinese. The main carrot is the continuing Chinese appetite for access to western technology; the stick is their fear of isolation. As Stewart Fleming argued in European Voice (13-19 July), the results of the EU's softly-softly approach with regard to trade liberalisation have been deeply disappointing.

The same could be said of the regular human rights dialogue, which China now conducts not only with the EU, but also bilaterally with some 15 western countries, including Norway, Switzerland and Australia. The Chinese have greatly improved their ability to argue their case in discussions with foreign interlocutors, but the progress made on the ground has been spasmodic and limited, as is illustrated by the recent appalling revelations about the wholesale forced donation of human organs by Falun Gong prisoners.

It is essential that whatever changes the EU adopts in its relationship with China, it should not relax its pressure over human rights. In particular, it should back to the hilt the recommendations made by Amnesty International in the devastating report it has just issued on the arms trade.

Officially China is now the eighth largest arms exporter, though the published statistics probably greatly under-estimate its actual sales. Many of these are by companies established by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) or the state police agency.

What is undeniable is that China is the only major arms exporting power that has not entered into any multilateral agreement which sets out criteria, including respect for human rights, for licensing decisions. It has continued to allow military equipment to be sent to Sudan despite well-documented and widespread killings, rapes and abductions by government-armed forces and allied military groups in Darfur.

Despite its status as a permanent member of the Security Council, it continued to supply small arms to Liberia in defiance of a UN embargo, and other recent customers include countries with such little regard for human rights as Iran, Myanmar and Pakistan, as well as armed criminal groups in South Africa and Chad.

A year ago China made a big push to try to secure the lifting of the EU's own embargo, and almost succeeded in its object. The EU should now make it abundantly clear that there can be no question of this happening unless China puts it own house in order, and supports the demand for an international arms trade treaty which is to be debated by the UN General Assembly in September.

In China itself a lively debate is currently raging within the ruling circle about the nature of its relationship with Europe, as well on the desirability of democratising experiments, despite the strict clampdown on public discussion. It is essential that the EU should use whatever influence - and pressure – it can, to tilt the balance in favour of those wishing to open up China, both externally and internally.

Dick Leonard is the author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.