China-EU Marriage on the Rocks, but Salvageable


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.

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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.

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.

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