France sidesteps human rights concerns and forges strategic alliance with China

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The Independent Online

France and China laid the foundations for a new economic and diplomatic alliance yesterday, with President Jacques Chirac taking Beijing's side against Taiwan and calling for an end to the European embargo on Chinese arms sales.

The new Chinese president, Hu Jintao, on a state visit to France, became the first Communist head of state to address the French national assembly. He announced that China would buy 21 A-320 airbuses from the French-led European airbus consortium.

The elaborate state visit for Mr Hu - and a joint press conference by the presidents at the Elysée palace yesterday - has raised suspicions in Washington that M. Chirac wishes to build a new alliance with China in an attempt to counter US influence in the world.

The warmth of the welcome given to Mr Hu, and the invitation to address the national assembly, have also disturbed some French politicians of both right and left. Two dozen deputies boycotted Mr Hu's speech last night on the grounds that only democratic politicians should address parliament.

Several of them joined in a demonstration outside the national assembly for human rights and independence for Tibet.

French officials and other members of parliament conceded that Mr Hu's visit - marking "the year of China" in France, which began with an immense Chinese new year parade on the Champs Elysée on Saturday - was part of an attempt to forge a stronger Paris-Beijing axis.

They said that the main focus was not political but commercial and economic. A number of other lucrative contracts will shortly be announced by Beijing, including the creation of a high-speed railway line between Beijing and Shanghai and four nuclear power stations. France has considerable technological prowess in both fields.

However, M. Chirac's mostly uncritical welcome for the new Chinese president also fits with his often declared opinion that the 21st century should be a "multi-polar world" in which France - and Europe - should not be subservient to a "unipolar" American world view.

China, as a permanent member of the UN security council, holds one of the keys to France's hopes - despite the destructive confrontations over the Iraqi war - of restoring the influence of the United Nations.

At the press conference yesterday, M. Chirac gave a diplomatic gift to Mr Hu by criticising plans by the Taiwanese government to hold a referendum on increasing the island's defences against a possible invasion from the Chinese mainland.

"All initiatives that can be interpreted as aggressive by one side or the other are dangerous for everyone and thus irresponsible," M. Chirac said. Washington has also criticised the referendum idea.

France pushed in Brussels on Monday for the lifting of the arms embargo imposed on China by the EU after the savage repression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing in 1989. Other governments, including Britain and Germany, resisted any change but the issue will be considered again in April.

France argues that economic and commercial relations between the West and China are now so healthy - and diplomatic relations so cordial - that the ban on arms sales is obsolete. "This embargo no longer makes any sense," M. Chirac said at his joint press conference with Mr Hu yesterday. "It will, I hope, be lifted in the months to come."

In return, President Hu gave very little. President Chirac said that he had pressed his guest on the question of human rights in China.

The Chinese President said yesterday that the "door of the central Chinese government was always open" to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama - but only if he gave up the idea of independence for Tibet, annexed by China in 1951.

"Our differences... are not over questions of democracy, religion or human rights, but rather over the issue of whether one recognises that Tibet is an inseparable part of China," President Hu said.