BEIJING — Relations between China and Europe have frayed suddenly, and a caustic diplomatic row has given way to suggestions that China is again targeting France as a favored whipping boy.
Neither side backed down Tuesday over the main point of dispute: French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to go ahead with a meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, in Poland this coming Saturday.
Sarkozy holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and last week China abruptly cancelled a high-level annual China-EU summit set for this week.
Then in short order, China last Friday executed an accused spy for Taiwan whose family had deep links to Austria, prompting anger among EU leaders who'd appealed for clemency.
China Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao warned France on Tuesday that political and diplomatic relations were at stake if Sarkozy went ahead with the meeting, and said responsibility for tattered Sino-EU relations falls on his shoulders.
"It is because the French leader is bent on meeting with the Dalai Lama in disregard of China's wishes," Liu said.
Public opinion in both China and within the EU appears to be growing more negative toward the other side, allowing leaders in the respective regions to gain domestic advantage through confrontation, or standing their ground on an emotional issue like Tibet, which China claims as an inalienable part of its territory and many Europeans see as choking under a Chinese yoke.
The global economic crisis adds a complicating dimension.
"Nerves are strained more than usual, and Chinese are also playing to the domestic galleries. Canceling a summit with Europe shows that China is flexing its muscles," said Jean-Pierre Lehmann, the founding director of the Evian Group, a Lausanne, Switzerland, research group focusing on the global economic order.
Chinese leaders find it easier to apply pressure to a sometimes-fractious Europe.
"They feel they can bully Europe in a way they can't really bully the United States," Lehmann said.
What seems like bullying in Europe, particularly France, appears to some Chinese as simply wielding the nation's new strength to defend its core interests and territorial integrity.
"French people view Tibet as a simple issue of pursuing independence and protecting Tibetan culture. They do not understand the history of serfdom in Tibet," said Jin Ling, an analyst at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.
Angered by what they see as Sarkozy's insistence on stamping on China's toes, Internet users in China revived calls for a boycott of French goods, echoing a campaign earlier this year after an Olympic torch relay was disrupted in Paris by pro-Tibetan protesters. Then, protesters rallied against French company Carrefour, which is one of China's largest retailers.
At the time, Sarkozy said he might not attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Games unless China made progress in long-stalled talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys on the future of Tibet. Sarkozy later changed his mind and attended.
The sudden spat emerges despite huge trade ties between Europe and China. The EU is now China's largest export market. European retailers and manufacturers do a swelling business in China.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have met with the Dalai Lama in the past year without undergoing the kind of pressure Sarkozy now faces from China.
France cedes the presidency of the 27-member EU to the Czech Republic on Jan. 1, and Beijing hopes relations with Europe will improve then, although Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek met with the Dalai Lama in Prague Monday.
Adding to tensions was Friday's execution of 59-year-old biochemist Wo Weihan, whose daughters are Austrian. Leaders in Brussels said they were shocked that Wo was killed with a shot to the head the same day that the EU urged China to reconsider his case.
"This execution seriously undermines the spirit of trust and mutual respect required for this EU-China dialogue on human rights," Javier Solana, the EU's top diplomat, said in a statement.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this article.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008