Another EU-China piece to come out around the Summit this time for the Oriental Morning Post (东方早报) – as usual, published Chinese above, English submitted below. Am also going to follow up a bit on this subject, and am still awaiting for longer pieces I have written on this topic to see the light of day. In the meantime, the Summit takes place today and seems to be focusing on economic affairs.
Thursday marks the 15th EU-China Summit, or China’s annual meeting with its largest trading partner. And yet, it is likely that the Summit will pass without much attention with people instead focused towards America and ongoing tensions with China’s eastern neighbors. This unfortunate state of affairs highlights how a relationship with the potential to play a major role in international affairs is being left to the side while neuralgic obsessions between China and her neighbors dominate the global perception of East Asian affairs.
The EU-China relationship remains a relatively young one. While individual European member states have long and sometimes ambiguous histories with China, the European Union itself only established formal relations with China some 37 years ago, about 24 years after the foundation of a European Union and 26 years since the foundation of the People’s Republic. First established in the wake of the Second World War as a Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) between France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands the European Union was initially conceived as a way of guaranteeing that the wars that had dominated much of Europe’s history could never happen again.
Nowadays this dream has evolved further and the EU is trying to forge a common foreign and security identity to try to project itself in the world. And key amongst foreign relationships is China. Since 2004 the EU has been China’s largest trading partner and China has been the EU’s second. Currently, bilateral trade stands at a massive 428.7 billion Euros with a further 42.6 billion Euros in trade in services. The EU and China meet annually for Summit’s, have regular high level economic and strategic dialogues, and over 50 specific sectoral dialogues that meet regularly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Beyond dialogue there are a growing number of instances in which Chinese and Europeans are working together on the world stage. In the waters off Somalia, Chinese and European vessels together patrol for pirates, and earlier this year, the two announced the creation of a ‘Joint Project for Managing Disaster Risks.’ And beyond this, back and forth exchanges between European’s and Chinese are commonplace: many Chinese friends tell me of how much they enjoy going to Europe (and not just because of the weak Euro!), whilst I first came to work in China along with 30 others under the auspices of a project to improve contacts between China and Europe. And a number of us have chosen to stay on afterwards.
But for all this goodwill, the strategic relationship between China and Europe seems to constantly languish in the dark. Vastly overshadowed by the US-China relationship whose high level interactions and undertone of military hostility keep everyone imagining a new Cold War, the EU-China relationship is one that seems to slip past unobserved.
This is unfortunate, as the reality is that the EU and China are both large powers with a preference for multilateral activity on the world stage and without whom it is hard to imagine that the world will fix many of the large problems that plague it today. They do a growing amount of work together already, and the foundations are in place for more. Whilst the tendency is to dismiss Europe as a strategic power in Asia due to the absence of a large security presence, the reality is that this places it in a position where it can stand above the current tensions. In fact, in an ideal world, the EU could act as something of an honest broker between the two sides – with close links to China, Japan and the US, the EU could potentially play a role in helping calm relations. The very absence of a large European strategic security presence in Asia is something that should be seen as an asset rather than a hindrance.
The further reality is that the world is not solely dominated by security tensions. In fact, far more important to people’s daily lives are economic relations and trade – and in this aspect, the EU is as important, if not more so, than the US to China. China is in the midst of period of economic adjustment and its large economic relationship with the EU is something that is going to play an important role in laying out how this develops over time. We can already see how the downturn in Europe is having a negative effect on China. The American market has proven to be a difficult nut for Chinese firms to crack, while Europe remains far more open – something most recently seen in China Construction Bank Chairman Wang Hongzhang’s comments about seeking to invest some $15 billion in Europe.
The point is that the EU is important to China, and this week’s Summit will be further affirmation of this. Of late there has been a tendency to focus almost exclusively in the Chinese foreign policy mindset on the United States and security tensions with neighbors. This state of affairs will lead nowhere good and merely provide fodder for further tensions. A broader vision needs to be taken and one that takes into account a relationship that has brought prosperity to China. EU-China relations may lack the emotive security tensions that characterize US-China and China’s tense naval relations, but this is something that should be interpreted as an advantage rather than weakness.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and an expert of the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN).