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EC President Barroso’s Visit to China

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 01, 2008

    José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, led a high-level team of nine European Union (EU) commissioners to Beijing on April 24 and 25, 2008, and met the Chinese leadership. Notable amongst the commissioners who accompanied him were the Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. Though the main purpose of the visit was to start the EU-China High Level Economic and Trade Mechanism, it was significant for being the first visit of a high-level EU delegation to China in the aftermath of the Lhasa Uprising in March and subsequent demonstrations against the Chinese government. Moreover, the demonstrations against the Olympic Torch in Paris and London had introduced a note of acerbity in Sino-European relations. In addition, the European Parliament (EP) has been keeping up the heat on China. Besides other earlier resolutions, the EP adopted on April 23 a resolution titled, “China's policy and its effects on Africa,” which stated that though “China is the EU's second most important trading partner … dialogue with China on democratic reforms, respect for human rights and the rule of law should not take second place to trade and economic relations.” The resolution was also critical of China that “it is responsible for significant arms transfers to conflict-ridden countries, even in violation of UN embargoes in the cases of Darfur, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Simultaneously, the conferment of honorary citizenship on the Dalai Lama by the Paris City Council left the Chinese livid. Demonstrations against the French outlet chain Carrefour in some Chinese cities, an avoidable and ugly incident of the reported assault on a disabled Chinese athlete Jin Jing during the demonstrations in Paris, followed by the mollifying tour of the French president’s envoys to Beijing, all seem to mark the annus horribilis in Sino-French relations, which had remained otherwise cozy during the Chirac years.

    In the light of this chain of events, the visit of the EC delegation to China is extremely significant. Xinhua noted that the visit took place “at a time of several Sino-EU disagreements” and that the “differences on the Tibet issue … has recently soured the Sino-EU relationship.” On the European side, analysts and the business lobby have suggested to the EC that it tone down its public criticism of China while remaining firm on the issue of human rights. Prior to the visit, EU Trade Commissioner Mandelson warned against a direct confrontation with China and boycotting the Olympics.

    Though the main focus of the EC visit to China was trade, interesting developments in Beijing and Europe cannot be overlooked. Shortly after the meeting between Barroso and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, an announcement came that the Chinese government would meet the representative of the Dalai Lama. From the EU side, the statement issued by its present Slovenian presidency was equally interesting: “The decision (to hold talks with the Dalai Lama) was announced in a press release on the occasion of the visit to Beijing by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and other Commissioners, and the readiness to hold talks was explicitly stated in a letter sent on 16 April by the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Wen Jiabao, to the current EU Council President, Janez Janša.” While the maiden Slovenian presidency of the European Council may be ‘pleased’ at its achievements, one can however infer that Beijing has also been eager to come out of this imbroglio and was on the look out for a suitable occasion to express its desire to meet the Dalai Lama’s representative. The visit of the EC delegation was thus a much-awaited opportunity for Beijing.

    Trade was the main focus of the visit, though it is already a known fact that the growing trade imbalance in Sino-European trade, violations of intellectual property rights, technology transfer and forced joint ventures of European companies with Chinese state undertakings keep dogging their trade dialogue. On the eve of Barroso’s visit, BUSINESSEUROPE, a trade group, wrote an open letter to the EC president pointing out that in 2007 the EU’s trade deficit with China would exceed 170 billion euros. Startling also is the fact that in 2006, “79% of all counterfeit goods seized at EU borders came from China, compared with 54% in 2004.” The European trade group, amongst others, urged the EC to address issues like Chinese state intervention as well as restrictions on importing raw materials from China.

    It is obvious that the fastest-growing economy in the world is an attractive place for the European infrastructure, telecommunications and civil aviation industries. Similarly, China is keen on inviting European consumer goods companies like Carrefour, Louis Vuitton, Adidas, Lidl, etc. because of its huge middle class. However, it seems that the European trade and industry lobby would remain anxious while dealing with China for various reasons, including forced technology transfer, copying European higher-end products and a reverse trade towards Europe through their fake versions. Since Europeans consider their reliable and world-known quality products as tools to maintain their supremacy on the global market as well as their affluence, it remains to be seen for how long European companies would find China strategically important to do business in the coming years. Though Sino-European trade has the potential of at least 20 per cent growth, it would be interesting to observe whether European companies begin to look out for markets that are more observant of copyrights and other practices.

    The Olympic Torch has already passed through some acrimonious points and the Beijing Olympics would always be remembered in connection with these demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. The reception accorded to the Olympic flame remains varied in different countries given the level of friendship, closeness, ideological loyalty to the Chinese leadership (Pakistan, Nepal and North Korea) and the presence of Chinese and Tibetan Diaspora (Britain, India and the United States). The Chinese willingness to resume dialogue with the representative of the Dalai Lama appears to be a face-saving attempt in the wake of adverse international public opinion. However, six rounds of talks with Tibetan representatives have not borne any result so far. Though the Chinese government has announced a resumption of dialogue, the diatribe against the Dalai Lama continues. The onus lies on the Chinese leadership to prove to the global community that its dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama would be substantial and not merely a tactical gesture. It is true that a breakthrough in dialogue should not be expected soon. But Chinese sincerity would be tested not just before the Olympic Games but after it as well.

    Barroso’s visit was indeed an opportunity for Beijing to prove its earnestness before one of its close partners that it is indeed serious and consistent in its dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. The EC President’s remarks at the joint press conference with Wen Jiabao was also not too critical, but was rather conciliatory. However, if Beijing considers that burgeoning trade interests would ultimately force its trade partners not to take any adverse steps, it might not turn out to be mistaken because it is certain the global community would henceforth be more observant of Chinese affairs and its handling of issues like Tibet and others. In an interdependent world, the attraction of a huge market may not always serve as a trump card.