Features | Economy | East Asia

China-EU Marriage on the Rocks, but Salvageable

The China-EU marriage has rarely been a happy one, says Chatham House Senior Fellow Kerry Brown. But it’s one that can still be saved.

By Kerry Brown for

Is the world’s fastest emerging power destined never to see eye to eye with the world’s largest trading entity?

Over the past few years, China and the EU have frequently fallen out, kissed and made up, only to quickly fall out again. But, since 2006, it’s clear that the marriage has been more rocky than smooth. Promises that one side felt the other had made have not been kept. Expectations have been dashed. Moments of reconciliation have been followed swiftly by sharp disappointment. Like a couple who can’t live with or without each other, China and the EU seem doomed to perpetual strife.

So, will this tempestuous relationship ever improve? As recently as November, it seemed that it might. With the final hurdle to the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty having been cleared, the EU was telling the world it would now have more uniformity in its foreign and trade policy. This step, which came at the expense of a long, bitter process of internal argument, was followed by the appointment of an EU President and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Officials in Beijing– perhaps even more than those in Washington–were hopeful that this would allow relations to finally move forward.

After all, one thing the EU and China do understand is how to trade with each other, with the EU running up a deficit in China’s favour of $240 billion in 2008 alone if Hong Kong is included, and $170 billion if it isn’t. But once things stray into more political areas, relations get much trickier. Moves in 2005 within the EU to scrap the arms embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident went nowhere once the United States curtly made its dissatisfaction clear. In addition, for some reason the international response towards China’s position on Tibet seemed to be parked with the EU, meaning that whenever a major European leader met the Dalai Lama there were problems in the relationship.

This was exacerbated in the autumn of 2007, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to tell Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, when jovially discussing issues with him in Beijing, that she was to meet the Dalai Lama almost as soon as she returned home. For years, China and Germany had regarded themselves as the best of friends. German technology was greatly appreciated in China, with companies like Volkswagen and Siemens having a strong presence there. The Germans had, for example, supplied the technology for the flagship high speed Maglev railway that shuttles people from Shanghai Pudong Airport into Shanghai at 430 kilometres per hour. Yet all this goodwill was eclipsed with Merkel bowing to domestic pressure and first meeting the Dalai Lama in the chancellery, then holding a press conference in the Reichstag afterwards.

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And 2008, the year of China’s arrival on to the global stage with its hosting of the Beijing Olympics, was little better. Protests dogged the Olympic flame as it was carried through European capitals, with particularly nasty flare-ups in Paris where the flame was snatched from a disabled female athlete (France later apologised for this). Worst of all, President Nicolas Sarkozy, after signing millions of dollars worth of deals in Beijing in November the year before on his official visit there, went and duplicated Merkel’s snub by meeting the Dalai Lama (compounding tensions by doing so while holding the EU’s rotating presidency). The twice annual EU China summit was abruptly cancelled only a day before it was meant to be held, while difficult negotiations over trade issues–from the deficit, to market access, to anti dumping and tariffs–simmered in the background.

The Chinese can be forgiven for finding the EU hard to understand. As historian Perry Anderson has written in a recent lengthy study of the EU, ‘The Union remains a more or less unfathomable mystery to all but those who, to their bemusement, have recently become its citizens.’ Envisaged by some as simply a regulatory unit, by others as nothing more than a giant free trade zone, and by the more ambitious as some grand socio-political project aimed at supra-national dominance, in practice the EU falls somewhere in between all of these, and the confusion is made worse by the frequent identity crises it undergoes when set up against the United States and China.

So, when last November ties were at least looking a little better between China and the EU, more seasoned observers were hedging their bets on the prospects of things staying calm. Worryingly, China made clear that it needed the EU to join it in a troika with the United States, deflecting talk in some quarters of there being only two powers (the so-called G2) that mattered now. On November 18th, Wen said when meeting US President Barack Obama that China was neither ready nor willing to be pushed into this privileged position. Indeed, four days later he told a visiting group of academics, of which this writer was one, that China had enough problems of its own internally before it could consider extending itself around the rest of the world like a nascent superpower. Yet although the EU was seen as a frustrating, 27-headed beast with extremely complex internal dynamics that often did things that irritated the Chinese (in particular, refusing to grant China market economic status despite having done so for Russia as far back as 2002) the Chinese still saw it as a global counterbalance. And perhaps as a major supplier of technology, aid and assistance the EU can play this role.

But assuming the appointment of EU President Herman Van Rompuy and Foreign Affairs High Representative Catherine Ashton is going to cure the endemic complexities and mysteries of the EU would be to assume too much.

Two recent events have already proved the pessimists right. China’s hard-line position at Copenhagen, where even a final statement was almost scuppered, along with claims that Wen ordered all specific targets and meaningful measures stripped out, left the EU feeling sidelined. British Environment Minister Ed Miliband spoke for many of his EU colleagues when he complained about the lack of flexibility on the part of the Chinese, while the detailed and lengthy discussions that China and the EU had had on environmental issues over the past decade weren’t quite as powerful as many in the EU had thought.

The limited returns for the EU on apparently better political relations were underscored with the execution of British citizen Akmal Shaikh for drug smuggling on December 28th. Regardless of Shaikh’s guilt or mental state, the main issue was that the EU has a policy of demarching on any of its citizens who are given the death penalty, and asking for clemency. Britain in particular had felt that it enjoyed good relations with China, changing its policy on Tibet in November 2008–after 60 years–from recognising ‘China’s special influence in the Tibetan area’ to finally recognising Chinese sovereignty. The British government had also issued a specific strategic document about Anglo-China relations, speaking of their centrality and how many areas the two countries had to work together in, while Britain became the largest attractor of Chinese outward investment during the course of 2009. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown even wrote to President Hu Jintao twice about the Shaikh case.

Yet, despite all of this, Shaikh was executed by lethal injection.

A British writer once referred to Queen Elizabeth I, 500years ago, as `forever holding out her hands to her courtiers, forever disappointed.’ Similarly, even when the Chinese are trying to be nice to the EU and see its value, they are running into problems. So does this mean the EU and China will be permanently disappointed with one another? Will China and the US hog all the limelight, only inviting the EU in when they see fit and only on their terms? Will the EU’s perpetual lack of confidence and its confusion about its own identity doom it forever to the position of the political also ran?

The EU complains that it doesn’t get taken as seriously as it should, and is often berated by critics for never succeeding in translating its economic might into political returns. But in triangular situations, it can sometimes have a critical–and very positive–role. China, the United States and the EU must now seriously consider a formal mechanism that allows them to sit down and talk, as one, about the shared environmental, economic and political challenges that they face.

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China probably now knows that the Lisbon Treaty alone has not heralded some new dawn of unified EU activity and policy. That, if it happens at all, will take years to achieve. But at the very least the structures are now there for the three to talk more easily with each other. Perhaps with a triangular, rather than bipolar, approach, the schizophrenia that blights EU-China relations can be cured. It may not lead to a match made in heaven. But it could help them avoid further messy–and largely unsuccessful–divorce proceedings.