By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese state media rejected on Thursday European accusations that China was pressuring the European Union to drop plans to impose import duties on Chinese solar panels, adding EU member states had a right to disagree with the tariff.
The EU's trade chief, Karel De Gucht, bluntly told China this week it was wasting its time trying to put pressure on him to drop the duties plans.
But in a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency and posted on the Chinese government's main website (www.gov.cn), China's mission to the EU denied it was doing that.
"It's been reported that certain EU member states have expressed differing opinions on the duties the European Commission wants to put on exports of solar panels to Europe," the mission cited an unidentified spokeswoman as saying.
"I'm certain that this is a rational judgment made by them after conscientiously weighing up the pros and cons. There is no such thing as exerting pressure," the spokeswoman added.
China has shown sincerity about resolving the dispute but the ball was in Europe's court, Commerce Ministry spokesman Sheen Danyang said in a separate statement.
"Whether both sides can sit down for talks, whether these talks can be successful and whether we can avoid the expansion and worsening of this trade dispute, is totally up to the European side," Shen said.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, accuses China of flooding Europe with cheap solar panels sold at below the cost of production, and intends to impose duties.
That has prompted energetic lobbying from China against the move and divisions have emerged in Europe on the issue, foreshadowing a bruising internal battle over how to respond to China's trade practices.
NO SUCH WORDS
The European business community in China, which has long complained the government favors their home-grown competition, expressed concern China would retaliate.
"The European Chamber is against dumping and subsidies that are against WTO rules, and which cause harm," said Davide Cucino, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.
"That being said, the Chamber encourages dialog first. None of you have ever heard the words 'trade war' from me."
Asked if European companies operating in China were worried about repercussions, Cucino asked: "Who would not be concerned?"
De Gucht, who met Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan in Brussels on Monday, has confirmed there was widespread resistance among member states to the duties, but said governments were clearly being lent on by Beijing.
The split between the Commission and EU member countries, as well as division among the bloc's 27 governments, sets the European Union up for a potentially debilitating dispute over how to deal with China, its second largest trade partner.
Reuters spoke to 21 of the EU's 27 countries and confirmed that 15 opposed the duties, while six supported them. The other six either declined to say or could not be contacted.
France and Italy support De Gucht and say China's rapid rise in solar panel production - to more than total global demand - could not have happened without illegal state support. They blame Chinese overproduction for the loss of thousands of EU jobs in the sector.
The duties will deal a blow to Chinese solar companies such as Trina Solar Ltd, Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd., and can be expected to drive up the price of their panels in Europe.
But countries such as Germany, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands do not want duties on Chinese solar panels because they are worried about retaliation from China and being shut out of its lucrative markets.
(Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Eric Meijer and Robert Birsel)