Europe in the World


Approaching an EU–China deadlock

15 Jul 2013 - 11:41

A strong call for Europeans to change their mind-set
You could more than feel the tension at a recent conference in Brussels on EU–China relations. The two-day conference, ‘10 Years of the EU–China Strategic Partnership’, was organized by the Europe–China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN). ECRAN is a three-year project funded by the European Union (EU) for researchers to provide advice on China to European policy-makers.

The purpose of the conference was to discuss ten years of the EU–China Strategic Partnership – how relations have developed over the last decade and how they are likely to evolve in the coming years.

The Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the EU was invited to join the discussion and the organizers had made sure that there was a Chinese speaker on every panel. These Chinese presenters were surprisingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the current state of EU–China relations. In particular, they highlighted the urgent need for Europeans to approach China as an equal partner. Unless the EU changes its attitude, it will not be able to develop a real strategic relationship with China.

Chinese dissatisfaction with the EU
The Chinese speakers’ discontent was not caused by the EU’s recent decision to impose provisional anti-dumping duties on imports of solar panels from China. Nor was it the result of the EU’s anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation concerning imports of mobile telecommunication networks and their essential elements from China. A senior ambassador from the Chinese Mission assured the conference participants that although these decisions put a dent in the current EU–China relationship, they will not affect long-term relations.

What our Chinese partners do worry about – or, rather, get frustrated with – is the European attitude towards China, which has not changed much since the Strategic Partnership was signed ten years ago. All of the Chinese presenters at the conference expressed the need to take the partnership a few steps further. Some argued for a ‘Strategic Partnership 2.0’; others simply stated that ‘signing the intention for a strategic partnership does not yet make one’. ‘Trust’ is the keyword that was mentioned by most Chinese presenters.

The Chinese do not feel that they are being taken seriously by their European partners, since the Europeans (be they diplomats or academics) tend to keep thinking that they are in the position to correct the Chinese government. The Chinese presenters argued that a true strategic partnership is not possible if one partner thinks that it can set the rules that the other partner must obey.

Missing the point
The Chinese message is that ‘common economic interests form the basis, but are not sufficient for a real strategic partnership between the EU and China’. Although this message was presented repeatedly and forcefully at the Brussels conference, it was either not understood or ignored by most of the European participants.

Instead, the Europeans listed and celebrated the achievements of the past ten years of partnership with China. Moreover, the Chinese presenters were teased a little with questions and comments about what kind of friendship they were seeking.

The European participants completely missed the key message from the Chinese Mission to the EU about building relations on an equal footing. Instead of taking this pertinent point of critique from the Chinese partners seriously, some of the European participants at the conference saw this as an invitation to mention once again the aspects that they would like to see change in China.

It seems that EU–China relations are approaching a serious deadlock. Europeans may not notice much of this, because of the common economic interests between Europe and China. China will remain one of the main trading partners for Europe, and Chinese investment to Europe is expected to increase towards 2020. However, the fragility of a relationship that is mainly based on economic interests becomes visible when challenging issues arise, such as, for example, the discussion on the Chinese solar panels.

If a relationship is mainly based on economic interests, a decision that threatens the economic interests of one party is likely to provoke a reaction that affects the economic interests of the other party and puts the relation itself at stake. How different would the discussion on the dumping of Chinese solar panels on the European market have been if the EU had much stronger relations with China in areas other than shared economic interests?

What is at stake?
European military, political and economic influence is currently waning. The more that European influence in the world declines, the more independent of Europe other countries become and the less they accept rules that are set and strongly defended by the EU. This not only counts for China and other (re-)emerging powers, but also for the so-called ‘developing countries’. The latter now have more options than before about who to engage with, and many have expressed a preference for China’s non-interference policy.

The EU’s waning military, political and economic power means that it falls under stricter scrutiny. Clinging to the self-imposed role of the defender of ‘universal values’, while it is simultaneously increasingly noticed that European states and companies do not always adhere to these values themselves, will not contribute to European influence abroad. To focus on improving the behaviour of Europe’s own governments and companies and on building real international partnerships on an equal footing would be a better testimony of leadership.

If the EU wants to keep an influential position in the world, Europeans should take a step back and start listening more than teaching.

Strategic partnership 2.0
The European Union is propagating ‘effective multilateralism’, with the main objective being to create a ‘rule-based international society’ that conforms to existing international rules. However, China and other (re-)emerging powers argue that it is not true engagement to invite them to participate more actively in an international society that is based on a set of rules that they did not establish.

In order to get closer to a ‘Strategic Partnership 2.0’ with China, Europeans should realize the importance of ownership for anybody to want to commit to rules. Someone who has been actively involved in a decision-making process and feels like ‘owning’ the decision that has been made is more prone to implement the decision than someone who is forced to implement that same decision. Furthermore, Europeans should realize that their ideas and values are based on their own experiences.

The EU’s self-imposed role of teaching and preaching the world how to behave is not effective. The Chinese speakers at the Brussels conference asked for such a change in European behaviour. At first they did so in a gentle and diplomatic way, but on the conference’s second day they did so loudly and clearly through the microphone.

China’s official representatives are losing patience. Is the EU ready to engage fully with China, develop a real strategic partnership, and look jointly for solutions for political, economic, social and environmental challenges? If we keep focusing on economic interests alone, relations with China will remain fragile and a lack of trust between the partners will enhance rivalry and competition rather than cooperation.

The EU might not be afraid of increasing competition with China because the general thought seems to be that if it comes to a serious clash, the EU will win. However, it will not be the first time that a great power loses its influence because of arrogance. The importance of a ‘Strategic Partnership 2.0’ for our Chinese partners is the long-term stability to which it could lead.

Chinese official representatives seem to realize that winning such a theoretical clash between China and Europe would not last and that long-term stability can only be realized through real international partnerships on an equal footing.

Sanne van der Lugt is an Economic Researcher at Profundo and co-founder of the Emerging Powers and Africa Network in the Netherlands.

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