A short piece I wrote a little while ago for the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), focusing on the EU and China’s diplomatic links. For more about ECRAN, please go here, while to know about this specific project, please go here. More on this topic for ECRAN to come in the next few days as we gear up for the EU-China Summit.
There is no shortage of diplomatic relations between the EU and China. According to the EEAS count there are over 50 dialogues current running under three major pillars (strategic, economic and sectoral, and people-to-people), with the annual EU-China Summit at its apex. Additional high level conferences include senior business dialogues, a recently established minister-level energy dialogue, a party political forum between European Parliamentary parties and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as lower level interactions across the board through executive branch interactions, Track II meetings (often including think tanks), and a whole array of other forms of contact. In addition, EU- level interactions with China are further repeated at the national level as Member States maintain their bilateral relationships with China. And sitting atop this, there is the diplomatic interaction between the EU, EU Member States and China in international institutions like the United Nations, G20, or the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). This high level and regular interaction at so many levels is testament to not only a close relationship, but also to the preference both sides show for multilateralism in international affairs.
The stated EU goal of this wide array of interactions is to provide an ‘effective tool for further widening and deepening EU relations with China.’ However, it is not always clear exactly how effective they have been. European diplomats involved in this process have highlight successes in getting Chinese movement on particular issues during specific economic or trade dialogues – something independently confirmed in the statements issued after meetings. But in other exchanges, for example the human rights dialogue, it is unclear whether the Chinese side is very cooperative. There have, for example, been reports that some European NGO participants due to engage in a human rights legal seminar did not have their visas approved to enter the country. Given the depth and complexity of the relationship, issues like this are perhaps unsurprising, but there is a need to focus and move beyond this wide-ranging discussion towards a practical relationship that enables the EU and China to advance their interests in international affairs through deeper interaction.
Part of the problem with moving the relationship in this direction lies on the Chinese side where the preference is for gradual progress and rumination. China and the EU interact a great deal at a diplomatic level, but the results do not appear publicly as fruitful as the China-US relationship where the annual strategic and economic dialogue is often welcomed with international fanfare and every senior Sino-American interaction becomes a global spectacle. However, despite appearances, the reality is that neither the US nor the EU are able to get much movement out of China when it does not wish to move. While relations at a working level between the US and their Chinese counterparts may be more in-depth than those with Europe, it is rare to get China to change its ways on an issue due only to diplomatic pressure or interaction.
Why diplomatic links matter
Diplomatic relations between the China and EU – two of the largest human and trading bodies on the planet – are clearly central to international affairs. A strong and proactive bilateral EU-China relationship is something that will be central in helping the world lift itself out of the current economic crisis and handling future problems that may arise.
The thrust behind much of the EU’s diplomatic interaction with China is to advance self-interest, but also partly to buy into Robert Zoellick’s notion of China becoming a more ‘responsible stakeholder’ in global affairs. However, China is only just beginning to accept this notion and generally remains beset with domestic issues that its leadership says should take precedence over international affairs. China will only become engaged when its direct interests are affected and it feels that it can justify its actions before the Chinese public. These are not criteria that necessarily coincide with European diplomatic aims. For example, Europe is very concerned and active diplomatically with regard to the ongoing unrest in Syria and the Iranian nuclear programme. These are both issues in which China has a stake although it is not moving at the speed or in the direction that Europe would necessarily like. And when there is evidence of movement on the Chinese side, it is not at all clear whether it is European diplomacy that has directly achieved these shifts.
There is nevertheless quite a clear confluence in preferred methods of dealing with issues between the EU and China, both of whom prefer non-confrontational methods of dispute resolution and are focused on conflict prevention. While some Member States have in recent years focused on the hard end of diplomacy in international affairs, at an EU level the emphasis remains diplomacy and dialogue – something that generally accords with China’s approach.
Diplomatic relations are a key tool of statecraft, allowing states to interact at a formal level in defined ways that allow for grievances to be aired, agreements reached and positions clarified. Given the crucial importance of the bilateral EU-China economic relationship, it is vital that diplomatic interaction between these two parties continue on the right path. The specific EU-China diplomatic relationship (as opposed to individual Member State bilateral relationships) is particularly important as it provides European states with the gravitas to speak to China as a peer. A nation of Denmark’s size (5.5 million) is better able to guarantee that it will be heard if it speaks within a body representative of more than 500 million citizens (i.e. through the EU). Formal discussions in which the EU is seen as the lead actor are elevated in importance and encourage the Chinese side to be more willing to engage in a practical manner. Currently, this coherence seems insufficient, meaning that it has proved difficult to advance relations into a more practical phase.
This report has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of ECRAN and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.