Stanley's blog

The EU Summit has come and gone, but was hijacked over the Roma dispute. This meant that little time was spent on discussing strategies towards third countries, including China. There was an inconclusive discussion at the recent informal foreign ministers’ meeting.

We do know how the EU High Representative for Foreign & Security Policy/Commission Vice President (HR), Cathy Ashton, sees China, following her recent, very successful visit to Shanghai, Beijing and Guizhou, and her long discussions with State Councillor Dai Bingguo, and meetings with Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

The HR is convinced that there are few more vital EU tasks than to decide the right strategy and set the right direction for the EU’s strategic partnership with China.

The rise of China and other new powers does not overturn the global system, but the shift from the G8 to the G20 is an indication of the direction of change.

Lady Ashton identifies the maintainance and strengthening of the open, cooperative global system as one of the most important challenges. The emerging powers are also developing countries which have often suffered from imperialism, making them instinctively suspicious of what they see as Western institutions. A major European challenge is to maintain the liberal order in the face of dramatic new competition and a protectionist backlash.

EU-China cooperate on many interlinked issues. They work together in the G20 on macroeconomic issues and the future financial structure. Concrete projects have been launched on green growth and low carbon technology. They have started to work together on maritime security.

The HR emphasizes the need to face up to the shortcomings in substance and process. The EU still lacks coherence and consistency on substance. Summits must be prepared more carefully, priorities more clearly identified. The relationship must be seen in a more comprehensive way: economic, politics, security and social questions (such as the rule of law or immigration) should not be handled as though they were fully independent issues.

Action should be more focused and result-oriented, including on human rights and the rule of law. There is huge untapped potential in areas such as cooperation on energy, investment, security and development.

Strong coordination on process is needed, with a structure ensuring consistency and regular political discussions to review the state of play. A comprehensive look at the relationship is needed, including the economic and the political aspects, and a joint narrative developed underpinning the more than 50 EU-China dialogues.

Cathy Ashton sees three issues with persistent differences that seem out of balance with the strategic nature of the relationship. Market Economy Status and the arms embargo were raised at every level in her recent trip. EU concerns over human rights are legitimate but the human rights dialogue has not been are not the most effective.


HR Ashton is clearly favourably disposed towards China and has developed good relationships in Beijing. She regards as a vital EU task deciding the right strategy and setting the right direction for the EU’s strategic partnership with China. However, the methodology in developing a strategy must be questioned. The HR giving her personal views in a letter to the foreign ministers is hardly sufficient. By now there should have been a draft strategy document for consideration by the ministers.

We know what the problems are but do not know how to solve them. And part of the problem is the absence in the EU of a strategic way of thinking. The EU has never agreed its core objectives. Little will happen until 2012 when the fifth generation of leadership takes over. Even then, the leaders will have been through the Cultural Revolution and with little international exposure. We really have to prepare for the next generation and at least 2017. The long term strategy of China will only then become clearer.

The EU is currently in a weak negotiating position with China as we appear to have no real short term leverage. China wants from Europe:
• the lifting of the arms embargo
• market economy status
• the benefit of EU experience and advice in a wide number of fields
• support for China’s international status.

As to the lifting of the arms embargo, an authoritative, independent report is required to enable the debate to be based on facts.

Market economy status (MES) will automatically be acquired by China in five years or so, and therefore is a depreciating bargaining chip. The trouble is that were the EU to negotiate market opening concessions in return for granting MES, there is no guarantee that the concessions will not be blocked administratively at or below the provincial level. However, insufficient effort has been made to design a workable package, broadened perhaps to include lifting the arms embargo, with maybe a staged and conditional granting of the two concessions.

Continued giving the benefit of EU experience and advice is not at issue.

Supporting China’s international status is linked to China acting as a “responsible stakeholder”.

What are or should be the EU’s core objectives? First, to achieve a level playing field for trading and investing in China. Second, to act as a responsible stakeholder internationally. Third, for China to be a strategic partner in the true sense of both words. This can only be achieved when there is greater mutual understanding and when their working methods are drastically changed.

It is essential in any negotiations to understand the other’s point of view and the context in which the problem is seen. Political, economic, social and cultural differences make this mutual understanding more difficult. An intensive programme to promote mutual understanding, remove misperceptions, reduce negative public opinion and improve communication, should be introduced. Longer term youth exchanges can be launched during 2011 China-Youth Year.

Underpinning the relationship should be the Confucian and Monnet principle of mutuality. Monnet’s other guiding principles can also help build Sino-European cooperation. There are dozens of bilateral dialogues and working groups. They meet from time to time and each side presents its position. There is rarely real intercourse, rather questions and comments, and the two parties do their own thing and reconvene a few months later for an exchange of updated but static positions. The participants should instead be seeking out the common interest and seek common solutions to common problems. Instead of sitting opposite each other they should be sitting on the same side of the table with the problem in the middle.

In the short term, the institutional structure of the relationship must be revisited so as to make the process more strategic and ensure rigorous follow-ups of decisions taken. A joint body should produce a report for each summit, addressing the commitments made at the previous summit and their implementation. The Summit Declaration should be mainly confined to the key issues discussed at the Summit and not contain a ‘shopping list’.

We await with interest the EU’s strategy towards China.


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  1. There is huge untapped potential in areas such as cooperation on energy, investment, security and development.

    Conclude an EU-China Energy policy?
    However the West can’t get its act together, so it’s not really in a position to agree a policy with China.

    For example a group of experts, led by Madeleine Albright, earlier this year presented their recommendations on NATO’s new Strategic Concept. The report includes:
    Access to sufficient supplies of energy is a requirement for any modern state. . . Any substantial or sudden interruption of supplies to an Ally would be of concern. . .

    As a general matter, energy policy is a domestic issue, with the EU and the International Energy Agency offering services at the multinational level related to potential energy supply disruptions. NATO, however, has an obligation to protect its own energy reserves in order to ensure the capability of its forces.


  2. I found this a particularly helpful summary of the EU-China relationship- it will be fascinating to see how, in the future, the interests of individual EU nations vis a vis China will operate in conjunction with the EU’s own China policy.

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