China and the EU pledged to "expand and deepen" cooperation at their annual summit yesterday, giving a low profile to human rights on an agenda dominated by trade.
Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister and holder of the EU presidency, and the European commission president, Romano Prodi, led talks with the Chinese prime minister, Zhu Rongji, and a 12-strong ministerial team, underlining the fact that the EU is China's second-largest trading partner after Japan.
Bilateral trade grew by more than one-third in 2000 to 95bn euros (£60bn), but most of that was Chinese exports to Europe.
On the eve of the summit, Amnesty International warned of a "significant deterioration" of the human rights situation in China and urged the EU to "convey its concerns at the highest level".
However, last night's carefully worded joint communique agreed only that the two partners would "continue their dialogue", saying it should "help promote compliance" with international standards.
EU officials were hoping that the talks would help to persuade China to open its markets further.
Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, held separate meetings with his counterpart, Shi Guangsheng, over access to China's insurance market, an issue that has stalled final EU agreement on the terms for China's membership of the World Trade Organisation.
Officials in Brussels were confident that the disagreement - which centres on EU concerns that a US company in China will gain an unfair advantage over its European rivals - could be overcome in time for Beijing's entry to be approved at the WTO's November meeting in Qatar.
Diplomats believe that Beijing's membership of the WTO should help reduce the EU trade deficit with China by lowering barriers to the Chinese market.
Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the Free Tibet Campaign all lobbied the EU to ensure human rights issues were not pushed off the agenda by the drive to boost trade.
"China appears to have taken a new and deliberate step backwards," Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty's EU office, said.
Beijing's increased use of the death penalty in its "strike hard" anti-crime campaign, the crackdown on the Falun Gong [group], forced repatriations of North Korean refugees, tightened restrictions on the media and continued reports of torture, "show a disturbing
pattern of disregard for international human rights standards", he said. [ ]
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