China Premier’s gifts to Europe come with price-tags

China’s Premier flies to Europe on Tuesday bearing vows of support for its crisis-rattled economies, in a bridge-mending visit that shows Beijing‘s potential to use its financial muscle for diplomatic sway.

Premier Wen Jiabao is traveling during China’s big Spring Festival holiday and his diplomats have said his seven-day “journey of confidence” will sprinkle agreements and uplifting declarations on European states battered by economic woes.


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This holiday cheer comes less than two months after China called off a summit with the European Union, venting anger over French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

“This visit is intended to have a lot of symbolic value. I think the Spring Festival time was chosen for good reason,” said Zhou Hong, an expert on relations with Europe at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading state thinktank in Beijing.

“China wants to show it’s ready for a fresh start after the recent troubles, ready to expand communication and coordination, especially over the financial crisis.”

Such heartening sentiment from the world’s third biggest economy with its $2 trillion in reserves will probably be welcomed at Wen’s five destinations: Switzerland and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Germany, the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Spain and Britain.

But Beijing’s gifts have price-tags attached.

China is still fuming over Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader condemned by Beijing as a separatist for demanding autonomy for his homeland.

Paris is conspicuously off Wen’s itinerary. Too little time for that, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Hongbo told reporters last week.

Wen can use the lure of investment and deals to remind the often jostling European states that Chinese cooperation comes with perhaps unspoken but nonetheless clear conditions, said John Fox, a former British diplomat in Beijing now at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

“Certainly, from the European side and Number 10 Downing Street the focus of this visit will be almost entirely on the financial crisis,” said Fox, referring to the British Prime Minister‘s residence.

“But China is also looking for Europe to rebalance relations, to take the sting out of these disputes.”

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