China sizes up EU's new face
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - The 12th China-European Union summit, held at Nanjing, the capital city of Jiangsu province, on Monday, focused on strengthening cooperation on a range of issues, including combating the global financial crisis, trade and investment, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation.
This signals that both sides want to put their bilateral relationship, which has suffered setbacks in recent years, back on track. Analysts caution that there is still a long way to go for China and the EU to form the strategic partnership they have pledged to create.
This was seen in comments by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a press conference after the summit, which was co-chaired by
Wen, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
Wen said China and EU, as strategic partners, should not only make joint efforts in coping with the global financial crisis and overcoming difficulties, but should "stand high and see far in shaping the future", to promote the establishment of a just and rational political and economic world order.
He called on the two sides to abandon discrimination, confrontation and containment and to promote equality, dialogue and cooperation. He said the two sides should enhance mutual trust and always be friends and not opponents, adding that they should respect each other's cultural traditions, social systems and values.
Wen called on the two sides to properly handle trade frictions and abandon protectionism. He said China hopes the EU will relax control over high-technology exports to China to achieve a balance of trade between the two sides.
Since 1975, when China established diplomatic relations with the European Community, the predecessor of the EU, the relationship has remained mostly stable. However, China's rising economic and political influence since the start of the new millenium has led to intensified competition in areas like the race for natural resources and political influence in Africa.
In 2006, the European Council, the EU's legislative and most powerful institution, adopted a new China strategy named "Partnership and Competition", which obliged the EU to accept tough Chinese competition while pushing China to trade fairly. Since then, Sino-EU tensions have been exacerbated by events such as the ethnic-based riots in Tibet in March 2008 and in Xinjiang province last July.
Thus, while the 12th China-EU summit was an opportunity for both sides to reaffirm the goal stated in 2003 to upgrade their "constructive partnership" into a "comprehensive strategic partnership", for now, this remains little more than a verbal pledge.
China had believed Europe would emerge as an important global partner in the construction of a multi-polar world but has been disappointed with what it sees as lack of strength or will on the continent to take on such a role. Beijing feels this is partly due to Europe's closeness to the United States. As a result, Europe does not weigh as heavily as it perhaps should in the balance of China's foreign policy.
In Beijing's view, Europe has failed to play the crucial and constructive role China thought it would in major international affairs that affect China's core interests, such the establishment of a more equitable economic order, recovery from the global financial crisis, climate change and the environment, and nuclear non-proliferation.
Compared with East Asia and the US, the EU's contribution to China's economic growth and scientific and technological advancement has become increasingly less important.
Europe has, in China's view, failed to act independently from the US when it comes to diplomacy and security. For China's security concerns, the EU's influence is not as important as that of the US or China's neighboring countries. This is perhaps due to the geographical distance between Europe and China and the relative lack of historical and cultural ties.
In short, from a Chinese point of view, the EU does not play an important role in international affairs nor satisfy China's major interests in many areas, so Beijing is now reassessing the importance of Europe for China's strategic interests.
Although there were pledges at the latest China-EU summit to enhance cooperation, the Sino-Europe "honeymoon" of the last two decades appears to be over, and more areas of conflict are likely to emerge. These can be organized into two catergories - functional conflicts and structural conflicts.
In general, functional conflicts stem from substantial, temporary or urgent issues that can be solved through bargaining or cooperation between the EU and China. These include the trade imbalance, issues over the Chinese currency, competition for economic and political influence in Africa, and the EU's arms embargo on China. It can also apply to recognition of China's market economy status, and issues such as technical standards.
Structural conflicts, on the other hand, relate to the field of culture and values, and here there are long-standing problems in China-EU relations. For example, differences in ideologies unlikely to be resolved easily are often apparent in the differences over Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
Both China and Europe have ancient civilizations, and each cherishes its own values as embedded in their political systems and foreign policies. However, while the EU wishes to expand its values to the rest of the world - including to China - Beijing resists any spread of so-called "universal values" by coercion. Given some bitter historical chapters in its recent past, China strongly believes in political and cultural independence.
Thus, these structural conflicts in China-EU relations will likely persist, and no dialogue (for example, the human-rights dialogue between China and EU) is likely to bring a quick end to them. Simultaneously, functional conflicts will be aggravated if structural conflicts cannot be handled properly.
European integration is forging ahead, encouraged by the successful signing of the Lisbon Treaty and the quick election of a new European Council president and high representative for foreign affairs. However, according to the Treaty of Lisbon, which now covers the EU constitution and which came into effect on December 1, the power of the council's president and the commission's high representative are limited.
For example, decisions in the council, as an intergovernmental institution of the EU, are made through "consensus" or "qualified majority" voting systems, which means the president is merely a coordinator between various member states. The powers of the high representative have similar limitations.
As a result, the progress of Lisbon treaty and the election of the council's president and the high representative for foreign affairs are unlikely to significantly strengthen the EU's hand when it comes to to negotiations and cooperation with China. Nonetheless, China welcomes any kind of progress that the EU makes in the process of integration.
In the post-Lisbon treaty era, China and the EU will continually face functional and structural conflicts. In this situation, to make concete steps towards a strategic partnership, both sides should build mutual-trust among politicians as well as among civil society orginizations.
More importantly, it will be necessary for both the China and the EU to strengthen bilateral relations through coordinating responses to urgent matters related to global governance, particularly issues such as climate change, international terrorism, the global financial crisis and reconstructing the world's economic order.
But to work together on global governance, both sides must abandon concepts such as creating spheres of influence through power politics. In the era of globalization, respect for diversity and multiculturalism should become shared values in international relations. China-EU relations can only be improved if and when both sides can adapt to this.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.