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Opinion: China's Exit From EU Talks Sends Chilly Signal

China's last-minute retreat from a summit with the EU is a bad sign for relations over the long term -- at a time when good communication is needed most, Deutsche Welle's Matthias von Hein said.

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The EU-China summit has been in the works for months. Officials from both sides have been sifting through files, formulating papers, and exchanging e-mails. Now, China has suddenly backed out of its plans to attend the meeting, set to take place on December 1 in Lyon, France.

Why? In Danzig, Poland, the EU will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace to Lech Walesa, who led the independent "Solidarity" union movement there.

Meeting with the Dalai Lama

One guest who has also been invited to the celebrations is the Dalai Lama -- also a Nobel Peace Prize winner. At the ceremony, he will meet with the current EU president, France's Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Chinese government looks at this situation and sees Europeans poking around in internal PRC business. But they apparently have no qualms about sticking their noses into the travel plans and appointment calendars of European politicians.

But the Europeans are right not to allow Beijing to tell them who to meet, and where or when.

Recently, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of Thought to Chinese civil rights activist Hu Jia. China reacted calmly, as befitting a regional power en route to becoming a superpower-But when EU parliamentarian Helga Truepel wanted to visit Hu Jia, who is under house arrest, earlier this week, Chinese functionaries didn't allow it. There is a growing chill between the two camps.

Poor timing in global crisis

Pushing off the EU-China summit comes at a bad time. With a global economic crisis unfolding, a working strategic partnership is needed more than ever. Both partners need one another. The ecomies are tightly knit. Chinese President Hu Jintao knows this -- witness the groundbreaking shipping deal he signed on Tuesday, Nov. 25, in Greece. For a 4.5 billion euro ($5.8 billion) investment, China can use the container port at Piraeus for 35 years.

This investment only makes sense if you believe there will be increased trade of goods in the future; it is a paradigm of pragmatic Chinese politics. But as soon as there is a question of Tibet, irrational reflexes seem to kick in to the debate. And since the supposedly moderate leader of the Communist Party's Tibet office, Bi Hua, was let go on Nov. 20, it seems things are unlikely to get any better in the future.

Matthias von Hein is the head of Deutsche Welle's China service.