Blair tells Beijing: "I am optimistic about Chinese democracy" and about trade too

The UK premier, currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union, led a team of investors in China during the annual Sino-European summit. Business deals and cultural agreements were signed.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – UK Prime Minister Tony Blair declared himself "optimistic" about that China will match its rapid economic development with greater respect for human rights and that it will move closer to democracy. The premier said he had discussed these topics in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao who gave answers that were clearer than in the past.

"There was no desire to escape this topic," Blair said in Beijing yesterday. "There was a general sense of engagement." The English politician, currently holding the EU rotating presidency, said he wanted to boost commercial links between the union and China during the annual two-day Sino-European summit, but many potential investors were worried about Beijing's human rights record and its authoritarian government. "It's not that people resent China, but they've got a question mark: will this development economically be matched by political development?" Blair said.

"China has to understand that people see a new China emerging and want to know what kind of country they're dealing with. I think there is a general understanding of that concern on the Chinese side," he continued. "In a country that is developing very fast ... there is unstoppable momentum there towards greater political freedom, progress on human rights."

According to Chinese government media, Wen said a trust-based partnership between China and Britain was "completely possible" on condition that both nations showed reciprocal respect regarding factors of major preoccupation, and a will to resolve disputes and to strengthen cooperation.

Blair said that trade and investment between Beijing and London could reach 40 billion US dollars per year within five years. He oversaw a series of contracts between British or European firms and China, including a deal for China Southern Airlines to buy 10 Airbus A330 jets for 1.5 billion US dollars.  Blair was accompanied by more than 40 high-level executives from British and European companies such as Airbus, BP, British American Tobacco, Deutsche Post, GlaxoSmithKline, Rolls-Royce and Royal Dutch Shell.

During the summit, Beijing also asked for the lifting of the embargo on arms sales to China, imposed after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, "in the near future" and Javier Solana, head of EU foreign policy, said that the withdrawal "will take place.  Both sides are searching for the right time to do it". The removal of the embargo is an item which has been on the agenda of the EU since 2003 but US pressure has so far managed to scupper it. Great Britain, which will head European politics for the coming five months, said the move "will not be made in the course of the year".

The visit had a cultural side too, which culminated in the signing of a five-year cultural-exchange agreement that British officials said would open the door to "large-scale cultural collaboration". The first commitment will be to reciprocal collaboration in the lead-up to the two upcoming Olympic Games to be held in Beijing and in London.

In Brussels, the trip of Blair generated great optimism about the Chinese giant, a sensation which should lead to ratification of the textiles agreement signed on Monday 5 September in Beijing by the European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and by the Chinese Trade Minister Bo Xilai. Thanks to the agreement, half of nearly 80 million blocked garments in European ports will be passed through customs, surpassing quotas established in June. The other half will be loaded onto next year's quota. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said the agreement was "honest and acceptable to all". A source close to the European Parliament said "initial signs are very positive" and approval (which requires that two-thirds of the 25 member states vote in favour) "could be a question of days, if not hours".

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