China strikes sour note at summit with EU

China's Premier Wen Jiabao (centre) stressed: "We do not have major conflicts of interest."

BRUSSELS - China struck a sour note at the start of its summit with the European Union Thursday, raising longstanding complaints over its treatment by the bloc even as both sides lauded the relationship.

Premier Wen Jiabao, in opening remarks, gave a lengthy list of achievements over the past 10 years, stressing: "We do not have major conflicts of interest."

But there was a sting in the tail when he used forceful diplomatic language to raise the issue of an EU arms embargo, imposed since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, and the EU's refusal to treat China as a fully-fledged market economy and so lift all tariffs on Chinese goods.

"I have to be very frank in saying this ... but the solution has been elusive over the past 10 years. I deeply regret this and I hope the EU side will take greater initiative to solve these issues," Wen added.

EU sources had said Wednesday ahead of the annual summit that "we have agreed to disagree" with the Chinese on the arms embargo.

The issue continues to divide EU member states and Britain notably has refused to bend to pressure from France and Spain to review the embargo.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is also meeting Wen, triggered fresh debate over the issue by saying in a report last year that the embargo was "a major impediment" to developing EU-China ties.

China will not get full market status until 2016 after accepting a 15-year transition period when it joined the World Trade Organisation.

There was a discordant note too on Wednesday when the EU scrapped efforts to organise a press conference at the close of the summit, as is traditional at such events, after failing to agree terms with Chinese authorities.

Officials also cut off a live broadcast of Wen's opening remarks moments before he finished addressing the summit audience.

With Wen attending his last EU summit, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso paid tributes to his role in fostering burgeoning ties over the past 10 years.

"Your role has been essential in bringing us to where we are today," Van Rompuy told Wen in opening remarks, highlighting phenomenal growth in trade and other ties between the two sides.

"We have reached a level of mutual understanding and respect ... (which) allows us to progress ... to address our differences," Van Rompuy said.

The 27-state EU bloc is China's single largest export market while China is the EU's second largest trading partner after the United States, with total trade worth nearly 430 billion euros ($560 billion) in 2011.

With a new leadership to be named in Beijing within months, recession and mounting protectionist trade disputes form the backdrop to the summit, alongside diplomatic differences over Syria.

There is also fresh EU concern over tensions in the South China Sea and between Japan and China over disputed islands.

"Both sides recognise that continuing to strengthen the EU-China strategic partnership is essential to get through these difficult times," an EU statement said.

Beijing has repeatedly expressed concern about the EU slowdown, offering its help in resolving the eurozone debt crisis even as it takes costly stimulus steps of its own to sustain domestic growth.

EU sources said earlier that the summit would aim to consolidate ties ahead of the leadership handover in Beijing, but "it is not a summit for big decisions", one added.

In office since 2003, Wen is to step down within months as the Chinese Communist Party and government passes the baton to a new generation of leaders.

Disputes - including the biggest yet of its kind, an EU anti-dumping probe into the multi-billion-euro market for solar panels dominated by Chinese exporters - should be kept in proportion, EU sources said.

Other contentious issues will likely include human rights in China, and Syria, where Beijing has opposed Western policies.

"We do have some differences ... but the two sides take care ... to act with mutual respect," Wen said.

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