How a Tibet probe threatens Spanish business drive in China

Madrid has rolled out major charm offensive to build economic ties with a series of bilateral events

The tension between Spain and China over Tibet could seriously hamper Madrid’s attempts at reinforcing ties between both countries. This year marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Spain and China, and for years, Madrid has been boasting that Spain is “China’s best friend in the EU.”

But the High Court’s decision to issue an international arrest warrant against former President Jiang Zemin and other Chinese Communist Party leaders for their role in the repression against Tibetans has created a situation that will sorely test this friendship.

The Spanish executive’s efforts to attract Chinese funds are reflected by the flurry of official visits to China by Spanish officials in recent months. In June, Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo flew to Beijing to deliver a message of serenity regarding the Spanish economy. The minister met with Vice President Li Yuanchao and handed him a report listing 11 pending issues of the utmost priority for the Mariano Rajoy administration. These include the negotiation of a new double taxation agreement with lower taxes for businesses and a social security agreement.

Just one month later, a delegation from Congress headed by speaker Jesús Posada met with President Xi Jinping, who was also informed of Spain’s concern over the trade deficit and its interest in securing more Chinese investments.

Spain has a historical trade deficit with China. Exports to the Asian country were worth 3.76 billion euros in 2012, an 11-percent rise from the previous year, while imports were 17.6 billion euros, down 5.4 percent from 2011. In the first half of 2013, exports totaled 2.02 billion euros. Meanwhile, direct foreign investment by Chinese businesses and individuals in Spain was around 130 million euros in 2012, twice as much as the previous year, according to Economy Ministry figures.

Madrid has been boasting that Spain is “China’s best friend in the EU”

In early September, Industry, Energy and Tourism Minister José Manuel Soria also traveled to Beijing to participate in the Seventh Spain-China Forum, which aims to reinforce business ties between both countries (there are around 600 Spanish firms operating there). Another goal was to increase the number of Chinese tourists who choose Spain as a travel destination. Finally, in November, Education and Culture Minister José Ignacio Wert landed in Beijing for the Education Fair, where Spain was guest nation this year. Wert announced Spanish universities’ interest in hosting Chinese students, who currently number 6,000 in Spain’s higher education programs.

In the past, Beijing has not hesitated to initiate reprisals against the countries that have allegedly hurt its own political or economic interests. It has acted against governments that received the Dalai Lama, and it acted against Norway after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize went to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

This is not the first time that a judicial decision has put Spanish diplomacy in a tight spot. Spain accepts the principle of universal justice, by which a state declares itself competent to pursue crimes against humanity even if these took place outside its own borders. This famously allowed Baltasar Garzón, formerly of the High Court, to issue an arrest warrant against Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

But the actions of the High Court, often triggered by claims from human rights groups from other countries, has angered even some of Spain’s allies, including the United States and Israel. Officially, the Spanish executive always talks about the independence of the judiciary. But behind closed doors all governments have attempted to curtail the court’s persecution of international crimes, which creates considerable diplomatic headaches. In 2009 it was decided that only cases involving Spanish citizens could be probed.

The High Court is currently investigating the Rwandan genocide and the CIA’s covert flights carrying terrorism suspects, among other issues.

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