The evolution of EU-China relations

By Wolfgang Deckers and Daniel Wagner
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, February 22, 2010
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For the EU, as for China, politics and economics are inextricably linked. However, it is unlikely that China would ever be successful in dividing the Atlantic alliance (if that were its intent). Up to now EU policy towards China has focused primarily on domestic issues, such as opening up China's economy, protecting intellectual property, and improving respect for human rights. In addition, many Chinese believe that the period of Europe's greatness has peaked, that conditions for the further expansion of European influence throughout the world no longer exist, and that China is inevitably becoming a world leader through a "silent" transformation.7

Despite the common interests and values highlighted, a one-party state led by the Chinese Communist Party naturally clashes with modern day conceptions of democracy. China's conception of human rights as purely socio-economic rights, rather than civil liberties, has led to inevitable clashes with the EU. This fundamental misalignment is one example of how EU relations with China are not without problems. There is also a divergence of opinion between the two in how best to combat global warming.

In addition, the EU suffers from its own internal discord, making its unity vis-à-vis China fragile. The EU is not united in its commercial dealings with China. Each country in the EU – especially the big three (Germany, France, and the UK) – are reluctant to work through the EU as they compete against each other for a share of the continually expanding Chinese market. It is also important to note that China has seen the EU in the past through the prism of the U.S. or the former Soviet Union. As a collective, the EU is not taken seriously by China.8

China is shifting its own orientation toward international affairs from a "victim of imperialist aggression" to a "responsible great power in a multipolar world" – something the EU very much supports. However, Beijing is struggling with the realization that being a responsible global player can also mean accepting the status-quo, which means not invading other countries at will, not attempting to overthrow regimes, and above all, not interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign countries (an argument it frequently makes when defending its own domestic actions). European policy makers on the other hand, influenced by such recent events as genocide in Rwanda, terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and nuclear proliferation in Iran and among other nations, feel a responsibility to intervene in countries that threaten human rights and international security.

In summary, because there are fundamental differences in how China and the EU address foreign policy, their bilateral relationship cannot in any way be called cohesive or truly effective. By the same token, comparing bilateral relations between China and the EU from the 1980s to today shows the maturation of diplomatic, economic, and political relations – evidence of the evolution of Europe's shift from a US centric view of the world to a more multipolar perspective, and of China's transformation from developing nation to emerging global power.

Wolfgang Deckers is Professor of International Relations at Richmond University in London, England. Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Country Risk Solutions, a political and economic risk consulting firm based in Connecticut, USA.

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