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21 Sep. 2012: Where to next for China and the European Union?

The European Union bids farewell to Wen Jiabao

For Wen Jiabao, who oversees China’s relations with the EU, yesterday’s summit was primarily a courtesy call. Despite this, the upcoming once in a decade leadership transition in China still managed to affect the timing of the summit, which was held a month earlier than usual so as not to overlap with the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It remains to be seen whether Li Keqiang, Wen’s likely successor, will play a similarly central role in the bilateral relationship.

The summit was bound to focus on issues of economic cooperation. The growing number of trade disputes—for instance, the latest spat over alleged unfair subsidies in the Chinese solar panel sector—featured prominently on the Chinese Government’s ‘to-do list’.

Wen also repeated Beijing’s long-standing demands that the EU lift its arms embargo and grant China market economy status. For their part, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, were clearly hoping for more concrete Chinese support in stabilizing the Eurozone economies.


The partnership is deeper but also more complex

The summit provided an opportunity to assess the development of EU–China relations in the past decade. Under the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen, China has deepened its interactions with European partners considerably, especially in areas of mutual interest.

The bilateral trade volume has grown by 280 per cent and cooperation on sustainable development, urbanization, innovation and science and technology is thriving. The existence of over 50 sectoral dialogues in economic, social and political areas, ranging from customs cooperation to space technology cooperation, illustrates the depth and complexity of the relationship.

However, almost a decade after both sides declared their ‘strategic partnership’, other areas of the relationship, including human rights and freedom of the press, remain underdeveloped. This was demonstrated clearly when a planned joint press conference had to be cancelled by the EU organizers because the Chinese delegates wanted to restrict entrance to a number of pre-selected journalists.


Taking the relationship to the next level

Fundamental disagreements also exist on issues of global security, for instance over the situation in Syria and the Iranian nuclear programme. The EU is also increasingly concerned about the continuing tensions in the South and East China Seas.

As the relationship between the two sides becomes more mature, the EU will have further opportunities to address these critical areas of disagreement in a frank but constructive way—for instance, through the framework of the recently established regular dialogue on security and defence policy.

However, in order for EU engagement to reach its full potential, it will also need to develop a strategic and unified approach to its partnership with China. While the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) was a step in the right direction in this respect, the current Eurozone crisis poses a serious threat to European unity.


Can relations between the European Union and China reach their full potential?

Combined with China’s upcoming leadership transition, the mixed legacy of the past decade of EU–China relations raises a number of questions.

How will the next generation of Chinese leaders handle foreign policy issues and especially EU-China relations? Can both sides work together to develop a truly ‘strategic’ partnership that goes beyond trade and moves much more deeply into areas of critical engagement, such as global security and non-proliferation?

It is of course difficult to predict the foreign policy of China’s next and as yet unnamed generation of leaders, not least because of the many domestic challenges they face, including an uncertain economic outlook, growing social unrest and challenges to the party’s legitimacy among the population.

However, the Chinese leadership transition provides the EU with an opportunity to reassess its past policies and to finally develop a more strategic and unified approach in its relationship with China. In this respect, Europeans could learn a lot from their Chinese partners.