The agreement was reached as the EU expressed concerns Tuesday about “the restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China.”

The EU’s diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service, called for the immediate release of Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer who reported on the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak in China and has been sentenced this week to four years in prison.

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“According to credible sources, Ms Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention, and her health condition has seriously deteriorated,” the EU said. “It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance.”

To enter into force, the agreement will need to be ratified by the European Parliament, and the issue of human rights could be a sticking point.

“The stories coming out of Xinjiang are pure horror. The story in Brussels is we’re ready to sign an investment treaty with China,” Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian member of the EU legislature said as he tweeted out a news story on forced labor in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. “Under these circumstances any Chinese signature on human rights is not worth the paper it is written on.”

The EU-China agreement also has the potential to cause tension with the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden only weeks after the EU proposed a trans-Atlantic dialogue to address “the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness”.

Australia goes into its next round of negotiations for a trade deal with Europe in March next year, while reeling from a $20 billion trade fight with China, in which the superpower has slapped tariffs and bans on several Australian goods including wine, timber and coal.

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On December 18, Australia asked the World Trade Organisation to investigate the tariffs China had imposed on barley.

The EU official said the investment deal will give the EU the same level of market access in China that the United States has and insisted that the deal will benefit other trading partners by getting China to commit to high standards of conduct.

AP

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