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Feng Zhongping*, a politically influential scholar, gave an interesting perspective on the EU-China relationship.

He insisted that Europe was important to China. However, it came third behind the US, and the neighbourhood countries of Russia and Japan. The EU is China’s number 1 trade partner and a valuable supplier of technology. But the EU’s political value is limited, with France and the UK more important than the Union.

At the end of the nineties and the beginning of the present century, the EU appeared important politically and strategically, with the euro, CFSP, enlargement and disagreement with the US over Iraq. It looked as if it would become a soft superpower. From 2003, the focus was on a strategic partnership.

Today, trade and economics apart, the need for political cooperation on global issues is increasingly recognized by both sides, beyond bilateral cooperation. China and Europe should work together to lead.

But EU policy towards China has changed in recent years. The EU wants more than trade – broader cooperation on global issues. China’s perception of Europe is changing. China has not previously appreciated the importance of soft power.

There are different perceptions on climate change. The EU built a united front pre-Copenhagen, but the big Member State leaders then claimed the credit. The EU is the leader in climate change. A ministerial-level mechanism was agreed to be established during Barroso’s recent visit to China.

There are differing views on climate change in China. Some believe that developed countries are using it as an excuse to stop China’s development. But the majority supports the government’s position. However, western countries are pushing China too hard financially.

Factors constraining the relationship include human rights, Taiwan and Dalai Lama. These are at two levels: government and public. Europeans see human rights in terms of political and religious freedom, whereas to the Chinese they are essentially economic. The reason for the difference is caused not by idealism but culture, and different stages of economic and social development.

Taiwan is not a serious problem, but France and Holland are selling arms to Taiwan. The Dalai Lama problem is at government and public levels. Tibet is a core national interest with the concern for territorial integrity.

China needs to improve its public relations. Frictions between China and Europe are likely to increase internationally. And relevant is whether China is treated as a developing or developed country.

There is a common interest on non-proliferation. Both wish to see the North Korea and Iran nuclear problems solved but Beijing believes that this should be within a multilateral framework. Both want to see the Middle East troubles resolved.

The priority in Africa is economic development The results must be beneficial to African countries and also sustainable. Governance is relevant.

Both have a common interest in energy security.

Looking to the future, the relationship will become more important, but not necessarily stable and constructive. Economic globalisation and multilateralism will be centre stage. There will not be geopolitical competition.

China still has a long economic march ahead. How does it continue to rise peacefully? Close collaboration, a global view and greater mutual understanding are essential. The worry is European public opinion which is increasingly negative on China, influenced by the media. But Chinese public opinion has the same trend. European companies pushed the relationship but now complain. Europe sees a rising nationalism in China. Officials, academics have different thoughts in China.

Each needs the other in an increasingly interdependent world; may be China needs Europe more, but that means the EU and its leading Member States.

Both side’s mentality still dwells in the past. Social stability is the guarantee of everything.

My conclusion

Feng Zhongping’s remarks deserve careful attention. He speaks for a confident China, but one that has not yet been able to shake off its weakness in recent history. He makes a series of proposals that Europeans should follow, expressly or impliedly to correct their previous conduct, but does not do the same for China.

Professor Feng refers to complaints by European countries of legal, financial and administrative blockages, which have worsened over the last year, but makes no references to faults on the Chinese side and the lack of reciprocity felt by the Europeans.

There remain serious perception gaps between Europeans and Chinese, and it is the duty of think tanks and academic institutions to devote much more effort to promoting mutual standing and removing misperceptions.

*Professor and Director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Beijing.

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  1. I must say I find these comments frustratingly evasive. In particular the comments about non-proliferation – the Chinese side seem to constantly say they want non-proliferation, but since their strategic end-point is so apart from the European one, this is actually a null statement in practical terms. This can be said of a number of other topics too. What Europe wants and what China wants is very different – or more frankly, how Europe and China want things to end up is very different.

    Might i ask the context of Dr Fengs comments?

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