EU-China relations: still in search of rationale

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PAWEŁ BIEŃKOWSKI, Asian Programme

In recent two weeks, the EU and China completed second round of strategic dialogue and Herman Van Rompuy paid his first official visit to China. Whereas these two events may signalize enhancement of relations between Europe and China, a string of impediments keep to derail the overall process. Now comes the time to evaluate.

EU-China strategic dialogue: same stumbling blocks as usual

Meeting in the outskirts of Budapest on 12 May between Catherine Ashton and Dai Bingguo, highest member of China’s State Council responsible for foreign policy was a follow-up to their first round of talks held in September 2010. Some anonymous sources indicate existence of positive personal attitude between Ashton and Dai which enabled them to meet so quickly after the first edition of dialogue and far in advance before the 14th EU-China Summit scheduled for Autumn this year. The second round, however, was overshadowed by recent trade dispute between two sides, started with EU’s decision to impose anti-dumping tariffs on fine-coated paper printed in China and Beijing’s retaliation with restrictions on imports of European potato starch. Voices from Chinese Ministry of Commerce have warned the EU of the risk of an overall trade war between them.

Second round of strategic dialogue was “strategic” in the name only. Two basic issues continue to serve as stumbling blocks which prevent both sides from moving forward. In close connection with trade disputes just mentioned, the EU opposes granting China full market economy status within WTO framework. Under current conditionings European Commission is able to invoke various anti-dumping instruments in order to assist European companies endangered by cheap Chinese imports. Possibility of such moves comes from a recognition that Chinese companies do not act independently on the market but instead continue to be supported in various ways by government in Beijing. Being that correct or not, China is doing its utmost in order to be granted full market economy status and be able to fight back on every tariff-related moves directed against its exports. The EU, having less and less to export to China, continues to oppose any “free market” recognition of the PRC.

Another issue is a long-standing EU arms embargo, imposed after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. For a long time every major event between EU and China, be it a summit, strategic dialogue meeting, visits by the officials or meetings of EU Parliament Delegation for Relations with the PRC attended by Chinese representatives, all have included a statement by the Chinese side calling upon lifting of the embargo. For Beijing it is merely a political issue and simultaneously a major impediment in the overall relationship. For Europe, embargo is strictly linked to human rights issues which the EU finds much more difficult to address than e.g. their American counterparts do. Here, the EU is internally divided into states that favor lifting of the embargo, led by France, and those who oppose it, associated with the UK (for obvious reasons related to strong ties linking London and Washington). The French approach seems to be as much rational as self-motivated. During its EU presidency in 2008, Paris succeeded in adoption of Code of Conduct of Arms Sales by the EU. Under this regulation any transaction in weapons trade by European companies and governments comes under numerous criteria, with possibly the strongest of them denying any sale to regions of “unstable political situation”. Since East Asia continues to be labeled as such in the eyes of European strategists, even if the embargo is gone the EU still would not be allowed to sell any weapons to China. But at the same time the embargo which nowadays places Beijing on an uneven position comparing to Europe, would not be an argument the Chinese could raise any longer. Particular interest of French and perhaps German military equipment companies is not without significance in this case, as these powerful industries are short of customers in the time of economic downturn and perceive China as an ideal market for their products. Since 1989 they happened to sell equipment to the PRC even despite of the EU ban.

Perhaps another underpinning rationale lies behind trade and arms embargo controversies. As China becomes more developed and rich, it starts to invent or copy technologies earlier associated with Western world only. Development of J-20 stealth fighter, in the opinion of American experts far more capable than recent US-made state-of-the-art F-35 joint strike fighter, and ongoing preparations for launching its first ever aircraft carrier in Summer this year came to surprise of many analysts of contemporary defence industry. Moreover, results of the 11th 5-year Plan of Chinese economy in the sphere of energy output and environment protection indicate remarkable success in reduction of energy use and thus high improvement of China’s energy efficiency. Although recent developments in China, namely serious drought reducing the output of hydropower stations and start of rationing of electricity throughout the country point at weaknesses of the system, an interest in Brussels towards China’s achievements in energy efficiency and environment protection are paradoxically high. Currently, China is world’s number one manufacturer of solar panels (more than 50%) and holds monopoly to rare earth elements, indispensible ingredients for today’s green technologies. Many European entrepreneurs and policymakers start to share common fear that once China masters sufficient high technologies, Europe will lose its last edge over Beijing and will have hardly any goods left to export there. Defence-related technologies are one of those most developed and thus highly guarded. However, in words of Song Zhe,  Chinese ambassador to the EU, it is only a matter of time when the Chinese will possess all the necessary military technologies. EU arms embargo would not eventually stop them.

Van Rompuy dares to speak out?

On the other hand, it seems that EU president’s Van Rompuy’s visit to China, his first official foreign voyage in this capacity, has delivered a positive message to politicians in Beijing. Clearly, the EU did not want to publicize this event too much, especially by picking up the dates overlapping with US-China talks on trade, security and human rights and China’s top military official’s visit to the US at the same time. What is important is that Van Rompuy has personally chosen China as his first destination in office. Programme of this visit was diverse and significant, starting from inspection of EU environmental project in Sichuan, talks with president Hu Jintao in Beijing and finally meeting with the bishop of Shanghai. Most importantly, Van Rompuy had a chance to deliver speeches both to the students of Party School in Beijing which serves as an alma mater to high ranking Chinese officials of each “generation”, and China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, one of the most influential market forums in mutual trade relations. He also met with vice-president Xi Jinping, pointed at as the most likely successor to Hu Jintao.

The visit featured establishment of personal contacts between the leaders, exchange of views as well as surprisingly, some elements of soft pressure on each other. First of all, Van Rompuy turned out to be another European representative to thank his Chinese counterparts for valuable assistance to some European countries hit by sovereign debt crisis. For more than a year China has been purchasing significant amounts of Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and other bonds in an attempt to safe their collapsing economies. At the time of serious disagreements between EU member states on whether to bail out Greece and Portugal or not, Beijing proved to be perhaps the most friendly and efficient partner for these two economies, providing financial assistance without any preconditions. When most of the EU countries left Greece and perhaps even started to consider kicking it out of the EU zone, China has initiated some long-standing infrastructural projects there, aimed at turning this country into a major maritime trade hub for Europe-bound exports. Direct airline connection between Beijing and Athens has been opened as well. During Van Rompuy’s visit, Hu Jintao reaffirmed China’s confidence in strength of the Eurozone – destination of Chinese investments and source of China’s foreign reserve currency. Beijing’s strategy is therefore rational and future-oriented.

EU president was not only grateful, though. Despite the fact that he did not mention Tibet issue, as requested by exiled Tibetan government representatives and going even further than meeting with a catholic bishop of Shanghai, Van Rompuy urged China that it does not only take trade superiority and economic growth to be described as a “world power”. EU president called upon China to accept a “greater responsibility” for global stability and indirectly linked it with European desire to see China finally observing European view of human rights. Recently many commentators questioned the value of EU-China strategic partnership, pointing at disagreements between the two sides on such crucial international issues as Iranian nuclear programme or situation on the Korean Peninsula. Although both EU and China successfully cooperate in the Gulf of Aden counter-piracy mission, they do not find common language on vital international problems. Even though the EU portraits itself as a major promoter of human rights across the globe it failed to address alleged human rights abuses in China in a unified way. One-sided endeavors of particular member states boycotting opening of Olympic Games in Beijing or meeting Dalai Lama did not serve well the purposes of common foreign and security policy of the Union. Even now, in the wake of a serious crackdown on dissidents in the PRC, only the US was able to exert any significant pressure on Beijing. The EU found itself too weak and reluctant to react on the issue perceived as a cornerstone of European identity. Targeting Chinese exports as a response to human rights violations in China did not prove to result in anything else than trade disputes and further animosities.

Common language still to be found

Some important areas for common actions exist, though. Key rationale behind current EU policy towards China is to intertwine EU 2020 Strategy, leading to a smart, innovative and competitive society with China’s 12th 5-year Plan, designed in order to bridge growing gaps between the rich and the poor and to balance growth rates between Chinese regions. Most of the 56 sectoral dialogues in EU-China relations are directed at exploring possibilities for cooperation on such issues as demographic changes, sustainable growth, social exclusion and environment protection. Ongoing EU-China Year of Youth is an example of innovative approach to mutual relations and an attempt to reach out to different social groups. Both EU and China seem to express strong interest in this kind of exchange and interaction. Similarly, an open day of EU embassies in Beijing on May 6 has seen very positive reactions in China, thanks to promotion of knowledge about the EU and showcasing its openness to the others. Very good references were directed towards Polish embassy in Beijing, led by ambassador Tadeusz Chomicki, which organized huge variety of events promoting Poland at its capacity as incoming EU presidency. What really matters is that European External Action Service mission to the PRC is the second biggest EU representation in the world, employing about 200 EU diplomats.

Time to finally choose the way

What way the EU diplomacy should go then? First of all, it should act in a common way. Similarly as other EU strategic partners, China is prone to cooperate with the EU on the international arena only when the latter speaks with one voice. Disagreements between EU member states on vital trade and foreign policy issues are the main impediment of Union’s foreign policy, much more important and far-reaching than internal weaknesses of EEAS. The EU continues to be bad at making internal trade-offs and it must change that if it wants to approach rising powers of growing influence and importance.

Secondly, the EU should not overestimate its own value and position and most importantly, it should not portrait itself as a state-like actor. With its internal diversity and inter-state conflicts of interests the EU would probably never become an international player resembling a nation state. Therefore, adoption of terminology and structures characteristic for a nation state do not seem to prove particularly useful and viable for such a sui generis organization the EU is. A “know yourself” notion promoted by Sun Zi may be of particular importance for contemporary EU leaders.

Thirdly, and in strict connection to the previous point, the EU should adopt a sort of niche or area of relative strength and at the same time stop to pretend it possesses any influence somewhere where it does not. Obviously, it touches upon the issue of CSDP, a framework experiencing serious difficulties and setbacks revealed strongly at the time of Arab Spring and particularly Libya developments, with the EU unable to coordinate its actions and deliver a viable response. Again, the EU would probably never be able to exert any sort of military, hard power pressure on China, similar to the one the US can deliver. Instead, the Union should focus on areas of its advantage and try hard to engage China before it is too late. Some commentators have already indicated the value of possible EU-China joint ventures in eco-friendly, high-tech projects as well as acquisition of shares of leading Chinese companies in the most future-oriented sectors. The only viable instrument EU really possess is its know-how and soft power, although their value continues to diminish along with China’s growth. Although Europe and China are still interlinked and bound with each other, EU leaders should pay attention to changing dynamics of the new world order with its centre unequivocally shifting towards Asia-Pacific.

Material for this article comes from press releases as well as personal interviews conducted by the author with EU officials under condition of anonymity.

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Paweł Bieńkowski

Absolwent Instytutu Stosunków Międzynarodowych UW (2011), studiował również na University of Kent w Canterbury (2008-9). Odbywał staż w brukselskim Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations, gdzie prowadził badania dotyczące współpracy UE z jej partnerami strategicznymi w dziedzinie zwalczania zagrożeń transnarodowych (2011). Reprezentant Polski na obchodach EU-China Year of Youth 2011 w Brukseli i Shenzhen. Praktykant w Ambasadzie RP w Pekinie (2010). Prezes Koła Wschodniego UW (2007-2009). Działa na rzecz popularyzacji idei Azji w środowisku akademickim. Członek Centrum Inicjatyw Międzynarodowych w latach 2010-2013.

2 komentarzy on "EU-China relations: still in search of rationale"

  1. Marta Makowska

    Wow! Jestem pod wrażeniem – bardzo analityczny i naładowany ważnymi informacjami artykuł. Jesteś jednym z niewielu autorów zajmujących się polityką Chin, których artykuły czytuję 😉

  2. W strukturze Europejskiej Służby Działań Zewnętrznych obszar „Azji i Pacyfiku” w postaci dyrektoriatu, razem ze stanowiskiem doradcy oraz usytuwanej w Radzie grupy roboczej, służącej Służbie „wsparciem”, zajmuje jedną z najpokaźniejszych pozycji. Wydaje się więc, że liderzy UE w końcu zrozumieli porażki wynikające z dotychczasowego lekceważenia ChRL. Sama europejska dyplomacja jest wciąż ‚in statu nascendi’, a do tego, jak zauważyłeś, została ona skrojona na państwo, a nie na organizację supranarodową typu UE. Państwa członkowskie nie dadzą wepchnąć się w gorset i ścisnąć trzema sznureczkami: jednym pociąganym przez lady Ashton, drugim przez Van Rompuya, trzecim przez Barosso. To nadal państwa członkowskie są „władcami traktatów”, od których wyłącznej woli zależy, czy ESDZ będzie funkcjonalna, czy raczej zniewolona kaftanem bezpieczeństwa. Chociażby z tej schizofrenicznej kosntrukcji wynika, że UE nigdy nie będzie mówić jednym głosem – nie o to bowiem chodzi. Chodzi o motyw „wiele głosów – jeden przekaz”. To już się powoli dzieje. Jak zaznacza David O’Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer ESDZ „za wielce pozytywne oceniane jest posiadanie przez UE jednej stałej twarzy” [zamiast zmieniającej się co pół rok wraz z prezydencją], w tym zwłaszcza w strategicznych państwach, jak pokazuje przykład osoby Markusa Ederera, szefa delegacji UE w Pekinie, który koordynuje prace wszystkich unijnych ambasadorów w ChRL oraz przewodniczy posiedzeniom 15 unijnych grup roboczych, co znacznie usprawnia pracę (http://euobserver.com/?aid=31488). ESDZ raczej nie będzie dyplomacją z prawdziwego zdarzenia, lecz placówką koordynującą prace unijnych amabsad państw członkowskich.

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