On the surface, the "Chinese case" at the last week's 60th session of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Commission was nothing but a routine matter for this forum. It was not the first time that the EU submitted a resolution condemning China for its human rights record, and it was certainly not the first year that it was quite expectedly voted down.
Human rights differences between Europe and China have at least two intriguing aspects that reveal how Europe is being torn apart by conflicting interests and its inability to take crucial decisions.
On the one hand, Europe increasingly needs to maintain friendly relations with China, a nation whose economy, according to Goldman Sachs economic growth estimates, will overtake France this year, the UK next year, Germany in 2007, and then Japan and the United States.
The Greater Europe project, which includes this May's EU enlargement, is viewed by its numerous architects as a means to achieve economic and all other forms of parity with the world's largest economy - the US. After the ten new members join, the EU's economy will indeed be equal to America's, but while Europe is all but in the grips of economic stagnation, the Chinese economy is growing by more than 8% a year. Accordingly, the leaders of Europe's major powers - Germany, France, and to a certain extent the UK - are considering the idea of establishing closer relations with China, as parity with America is one of their goals.
After all, if the Chinese economy is justifiably considered to generate up to a quarter of the entire world's economic growth, if it has already helped Japan and Taiwan to survive, why not try to hook up to this engine?
This is all the more true given that the process is already underway - suffice it to mention the project of a high-speed train in Shanghai that has gone to Germany, while a similar route between Shanghai and Beijing is likely to go to France, and there are a lot of other examples of cooperation between Europe and China. The very start to the revival in Germany market is thought to be connected to the Chinese markets.
However, this cooperation has a real stumbling block: sooner or later it will become necessary to lift the European arms and hi-tech embargo imposed on China in 1989 after Tiananmen Square. When Chinese leader Hu Jintao travelled across Europe in January, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that the embargo was "obsolete". Similar sentiments were echoed in Berlin and some other European capitals, which lead to the emergence of the term "strategic Chinese-European partnership".
The embargo used to be justified by China's human rights record. With the embargo lifted, it would be logical to expect that Europe's human rights resolutions will cease to be submitted to the Human Rights Commission to be surely torn to pieces by other participants of this UN body. Indeed, this is particularly true when one remembers that in the human rights sphere present-day China is not the same country it was in 1989. It is really a different state now, which one cannot ignore.
However, the embargo decision, although planned in March at a session of the European Commission, was postponed again, and Geneva saw the celebrated performance once more. In other words, Europe said once again that the Chinese did not have enough rights, and other countries again disagreed.
The point is that Europe does not feel free to take a decision on the embargo, because it was imposed in conjunction with the US and embedded in the NATO armament policy. The Americans are hardly ready to face European weapons in a hypothetical confrontation with China in the Taiwan Strait.
Moreover, American columnists have been hinting rather openly that, with so much trouble with Iraq, now is not the right time to expose transatlantic relations to any greater stress.
Isn't it really clever of America to use the Iraqi disaster to hinder the growth of natural competition, to prevent Greater Europe from moving its natural way? Although Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and the most popular politician in the country, has responded with a concept of this being the precisely right time to build "real" transatlantic relations, the latest embargo-lifting delay and another dull anti-China performance in Geneva are clear proof that concepts do not always translate into action.
But back to human rights. We can see that in this complicated case with its military, political, and economic aspects, the very concept of human rights is being used in an astonishingly unscrupulous manner. Will it be the case that Europe's need of an active and independent policy in the Far East and elsewhere might help it out of a humiliating situation when few people believe in the sincerity of claims about human rights?
This is the subplot in the Chinese embargo saga: it is time for Europe, bogged down in its internal problems, to remember that it is made up of the remains of colonial empires - France, Holland, Portugal, Spain, England - and to restore its understanding of the world's complexity and diversity. The human rights resolutions it has scattered around in recent years concerning not only China have been too often too removed from reality. Europe, to no lesser extent than America, is losing its ability to feel and respect other countries and cultures. The world knows and feels that, which leads to standoffs such as the one at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Human rights are a subject for respectful international dialogue. Moreover, one gets the impression that the stick-and-carrot world with regard to human rights has probably come to an end. This Chinese embargo saga is just one of many illustrations. Hopefully it will be the key to Europe taking a new look at Asia.