, PRAGUE, May 20 – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao left Beijing Wednesday for a much-anticipated summit with the European Union in Prague, overshadowed by lingering tensions over the Dalai Lama.
The summit, scheduled to open later Wednesday, was originally set for last December but China called it off in protest at a meeting between Ticapitalfmnewn spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
France then held the rotating presidency of the 27-nation European Union, and handed the baton over to the Czech Republic at the start of the year.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus will host China Premier Wen Jiabao at Prague Castle along with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
Although relations between China and the EU have warmed since the December summit was cancelled, the issue of the Dalai Lama remains a sore point, especially since he is due to make a new European tour in the coming weeks.
On the eve of the summit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu further reiterated China’s belief that the Dalai Lama was aiming to establish an independent Tibet, despite years of public statements by the Buddhist leader denying any such intention.
"The true purpose of the Dalai in visiting other countries is to promote Ticapitalfmnewn independence and destroy the friendly relations between China and relevant countries," Ma said.
"The Chinese government firmly opposes the Dalai Lama’s engagement in separatist activities in any country under whatever capacity," he said.
Eager to turn the page on tensions, the two sides are to focus on less conflictual issues such as the economic crisis and climate change, although those subjects are not without their sore points too.
Concretely, the two sides are to sign partnerships on science and technology, clean energy and cooperation on small and mid-sized companies.
At high-level talks in Brussels earlier this month, EU commissioners and a Chinese delegation headed by Vice Premier Wang Qishan agreed that trade and investment would lead the way to economic recovery.
Two-way trade has exploded in recent years making the European Union the top destination worldwide for exports of Chinese goods while China is Europe’s biggest trade partner after only the United States.
Last year they traded 326 billion euros (441 billion dollars) in goods with Europe running a 169.4 billion euros deficit with China.
However, the Chinese are eager to see Europe take a softer line on anti-dumping while the Europeans are frustrated that their companies face numerous barriers to doing business in China.
The European side is also to lean on China to make ambitious commitments to cut greenhouse gases in view of a key international summit in Copenhagen in December.
"It’s about putting pressure on Wen, telling him directly how important it is for us," one EU official said.
However, Beijing has in the past stressed that it is already doing a lot to keep its carbon dioxide emissions down, insisting instead that it is up to rich, developed countries to reduce their pollution.
Human Rights Watch called on European leaders to press China to respect its international human rights obligations, and not focus solely on business issues at the summit.
"The EU would be mistaken to let business and trade interests trump human rights," said Sophie Richardson, HRW’s Asia advocacy director, in statement. "Without the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights China simply cannot become a better partner for the EU."