The EU and China
The summit of discourtesy
Nov 27th 2008 | BRUSSELS
From The Economist print edition
Crisis or no crisis, China’s diplomatic priorities prevail
SUMMITS are a dime a dozen these days. So it is tempting to shrug off the announcement on November 26th that China pulled out of an EU-China summit, at less than a week’s notice. But China’s high-profile snub—aimed at President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who was to be the host on the European Union side—cannot be dismissed so easily.
Cancelling a meeting at such a high level is a rare breach of diplomatic manners. Mr Sarkozy has irked China by proposing to meet the Dalai Lama at a party in Poland for former winners of the Nobel peace prize on December 6th. Before then, he was due to play host to the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, in the French city of Lyon, in his capacity as holder of the rotating presidency of the EU. Some of the EU’s regular summits with China are very dull. This one had important things to discuss, such as joint action on tackling the global financial crisis. An official EU statement regretted the summit’s postponement, “particularly” at a time when the world situation calls for “very close co-operation”.
Mr Sarkozy seems singled out for special punishment. Both Angela Merkel of Germany and Gordon Brown of Britain have met the Dalai Lama in the recent past, without triggering such diplomatic fireworks. Mr Sarkozy, a mercurial chap, may not have prepared the ground with Beijing for his meeting with the Dalai Lama quite as diligently as did Ms Merkel and Mr Brown, diplomats suggest. Also, France and China have had some bruising spats this year: Mr Sarkozy criticised China’s handling of unrest in Tibet; the Olympic-torch relay was disrupted by protests in Paris (as in London); Mr Sarkozy hinted he might stay away from the opening of the Beijing Olympics unless China started talks with the Dalai Lama. Reprisals followed, notably an apparently temporary tourism boycott of France by China.
But other things are in motion. Recently the French, who will surrender the EU presidency at the end of December, unexpectedly put out feelers to see if other EU countries wanted to move ahead with a long-delayed EU code of conduct on arms sales to China. That code of conduct has long been presented by the French as the key to a much bigger prize for China: the scrapping of an EU embargo on arms sales to China, dating back to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The French, it is said, found little enthusiasm for movement on the arms-for-China dossier. America dislikes any idea of EU arms helping China modernise its army, since American troops might one day be on the wrong end of such lethal toys, in a fight over Taiwan. European leaders are not about to annoy the new President Obama, just to please China.