China and EU: institutional rapprochement vs. conceptual divergence

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PAWE? BIE?KOWSKI, Program Azjatycki

The latest and already 33rd edition of EU-China Inter-Parliamentary Meeting, completed this week in Brussels, has provided a useful insight into the Chinese perspectives on some crucial issues of mutual European and Chinese concern. This has also been a chance to experience the efforts made by Beijing in order to communicate its foreign policy objectives and convene a clear message from a rising power. 

Head of the Chinese delegation, Mr Zha Peixin, Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, was quite outgoing in responding to questions and concerns raised by MEPs regarding China’s foreign policy. Mr Zha generally reiterated some “classical” Chinese tenets regarding key issues of his country’s external relations. All these in a context of strengthening EU-China ties.

On South China Sea, the NPC speaker was eager to reinforce Chinese claim to the entirety of the basin, proving that PRC’s “ownership” of the sea has not been challenged since 1970s. Obviously, he was also very keen to claim that Beijing remains committed to the peaceful resolution of any tensions, taking specifically into account the recent stand-off between Chinese and Filipino navies in the area. While claiming sovereignty over contested islands, Mr Zha accused the Philippines of instigating the conflict by taking actions against “lawful” Chinese fishing activities in the area. Right now, in the context of ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh where a new code of conduct is being agreed regarding South China Sea, Beijing is trying to promote and justify its clever strategy of dealing with every claimant one-by-one, rather than face a unified regional block. This is obviously an easy tactics on the part of China: both Beijing naval capabilities and political clout can outweigh any of its single opponents’. While ASEAN unites in order to face the mounting Chinese challenge, Beijing does not seem to be backing off.

Another observation relates to the situation in the Middle East. Here, China also appears to remain committed to its basic principles. The NPC representative for instance outlined China’s priorities towards Syria. Their order seem to be highly meaningful. First of all, Beijing remains committed to the “UN Charter and its principles”. Which principles? – to be seen below. Secondly, China wishes to promote peace in the region, therefore trying to link the Syrian issue with a broader picture of international relations in the Middle East. Thirdly, Beijing firmly supports THE principles – here they are – of Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Consequently, another “Libya abstention scenario” in the UNSC is definitely put off the table. Only the forth in order comes the fate of the Syrian people. Ruthlessly realist as it reads, this is still the policy of the rising Middle Kingdom. Pity that after Libya some people have had delusions about the changing Chinese attitude to R2P. Similar characteristics describe China’s attitude to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues: support for 5+1 format and Six-Party Talks (respectively) and IAEA’s role easily mask the classical non-intervention principle. As China is growing in might in international politics, it is also trying to deliver a message: Order is still most precious, don’t mess around with its founding principles.
At least until the time comes.

Closer and closer ties between Europe and China, realised especially between the EU institutions and China’s National People’s Congress or the Communist Party of China indeed serve as a viable platform of dialogue and exchange of views. So does the Inter-Parliamentary Meeting. However, it is still better to remain realistic about Chinese intentions and viewpoints, since these are unlikely to undergone any radical change in the nearest future.

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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.

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