China Power

So Far, So Close? EU-China Network Diplomacy

“Network diplomacy” could be an effective way to take the bilateral relationship forward.

So Far, So Close? EU-China Network Diplomacy
Credit: Friends of Europe

Confucius enlightens us: “At forty, one has no doubts.” With the momentum of 40 years of diplomatic relations behind it, 2016 holds considerable promise for EU-China ties. With the start of a new year, it is an opportune moment to look at the past, present and future of the diplomatic relationship.

Historical Encounters

To understand the current state of EU-China relations, it is worth looking back to recognize just how far the relationship has come. Despite the geographical distance between the two ends of the Eurasian continental landmass, Europe’s engagement with China is characterized by centuries of reciprocal influences. From the ancient silk traffic, through the intellectual and artistic exchange between European missionaries and Chinese mandarins during the 17th and 18th centuries, to today’s comprehensive EU-China strategic partnership, links between Europe and China have long existed at the economic, social, political and cultural levels. Europe as an intellectual entity has always featured in the Chinese cultural imagination, and its meaning has also exerted influence over Sino-European encounter. The idea of Europe as the cradle of so many humanistic and intellectual movements evokes in many Chinese the spirit of great humane ideas such as the Hellenic philosophical tradition, the Roman legal tradition, the promotion of freedom and emancipation during the Enlightenment, the advancement of science in the nineteenth century, and the importance of research and technology in the twentieth century.

Europe-China relations has a long and rich pedigree in Chinese diplomatic culture. The first modern Sino-European diplomatic encounter came with British diplomat Lord Macartney’s expedition to China in 1793. Contemporary diplomatic exchange between the EU (then the EEC) and China was pioneered by then European Commission Vice-President Christopher Soames, who visited China in 1975 to establish full diplomatic relations. That historic visit paved way for the development of the current multifaceted, multi-actor, and multidimensional relationship, and laid the foundations for what would become a relationship underpinned by a highly institutionalized framework, consisting of regular summits, meetings and sectoral dialogues covering a broad range of policy issues. Dialogues and bilateral cooperation between the EU and China now take place under the three-pillar structure of the EU-China Strategic Partnership: the High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue, the High-Level Strategic Dialogue, and the High-Level People-to-People Dialogue. The three high-level dialogues were established in 2008, 2010 and 2012, respectively, and were built to be the institutional toolkit for exchange and communication between the EU and China.

Network Diplomacy

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The multifaceted EU-China relationship of today is characterized by a complex web of relations amongst a growing number of actors across the policy spectrum. Diplomacy must adapt to this complex architecture. At a high-level forum jointly organized by the Mission of China to the EU and the European Union Committee of the Regions in Brussels in November 2015, officials from both sides expressed hope that 2016 will be “a year of deliverables.”

How can the EU and China forge closer ties and respond to the challenges and opportunities ahead? One way is best captured by the concept of network diplomacy. In other words, managing EU-China relations is about widening and broadening the policy agenda, integrating a wider array of actors, and developing more channels of communication. The power of the network approach to EU-China relations lies in its ability to strengthen the relationship based on greater openness and transparency on both sides, marked by an engagement with a variety of stakeholders both within government institutions and from the business and cultural spheres. Network diplomacy facilitates information and resource sharing and expertise exchange; the network model of communication structures helps to integrate cultural diversity, thus building trust and increasing transparency.

Three Dimensions

The network approach to diplomacy has particular resonance in three important dimensions of the EU-China relationship: trade, environment and security. As a senior EU diplomat noted at the recent China-EU Ambassadors Forum in Beijing, these three issue areas have dominated the growing agenda of EU-China relations, and are of crucial focus for future cooperation.

Network diplomacy is a way of connecting actors across all levels of the trade relationship. Trade is the anchor of the EU-China relationship. Network diplomacy helps to forge a deeper and wider trade agenda. The two sides are building a more mature and more sophisticated trade relationship. As two of the world’s largest economic blocs, the EU and China together form the second-largest economic cooperation in the world; the EU is China’s biggest trading partner, while China is the EU’s largest source of imports and second largest trading partner. Bilateral trade is worth more than 1 billion euro a day. Meanwhile, the recently concluded eighth round of the EU-China Investment Agreement negotiations have paved the way for more substantive negotiations this year; the agreement promises to significantly improve the quality of EU-China economic and trade cooperation and to ensure that markets are more open and fairer to investment in both directions. In the 17th EU-China Summit joint statement, The way forward after forty years of EU-China cooperation, issued in June 2015, both the EU and China clearly committed to enhancing bilateral trade cooperation. Recent efforts in this regard include the European Commission’s Investment Plan for Europe and China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. China recently became the first non-EU country to contribute to the European Investment Plan, boosting confidence for an ever more important EU-China trade relationship.

Network diplomacy is also omnipresent and effective in EU-China cooperation on the environment. The environment has emerged as a priority area in the EU-China strategic partnership, with cooperation bolstered by the creation of multiple channels of policy dialogues to help China develop a green economy, notably the policy dialogue between the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The policy dialogue is underpinned by a number of major multiannual development and cooperation programs. A prime example is the EU-China Environmental Governance Programme launched in 2010. It is designed to encourage public participation and corporate responsibility in China, which has helped bolster environmental awareness in China and improve environmental monitoring and governance at the local and national levels. Another major project: Supporting the Design and Implementation of Emissions Trading Systems in China (EU-China ETS Project). The EU-China Joint Statement on Climate Change issued at the Brussels Summit in the summer of 2015 promises to intensify dialogue and cooperation between the EU and China in combating climate change.

In the security realm, network diplomacy helps build trust and increase transparency, promoting communication and facilitating information transfer. Security has traditionally been in the shadows of the bilateral relationship, but both the EU and China recognize the need to strengthen cooperation in this area. Tangible results have been achieved with the network model. In 2014, EU and Chinese naval vessels joined forces in the Gulf of Aden to conduct anti-piracy exercises, demonstrating growing cooperation in international security. China also dispatched 135 peacekeepers to Mali, where they worked together with the EU. It was the first time that China had dispatched security forces for a peacekeeping mission. The EU and China have also expanded their dialogue to include foreign and security policy. There are meetings at least once a year between EU and Chinese experts on international security and non-proliferation issues, and there are regular visits of high-ranking military and civilian representatives between the two sides. Some elite military schools in Europe also help train China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers. In short, there is a growing network of dialogue and cooperation between the EU and China in the security field.

EU-China Network Diplomacy Into the Future

A “networked” development and understanding of EU-China relations suggest a new model of diplomacy – network diplomacy – to take the multifaceted, multidimensional and multi-actor EU-China relationship to a new level. Network diplomacy in EU-China relations is a more nuanced and more enlightened approach to strengthening bilateral ties. Network diplomacy underscores collaboration between the EU and China across all levels; it emphasizes information and resource exchange and broadening channels of communication and dialogue. EU-China network diplomacy is a form of engagement that calls for genuine partnership based on trust and openness, it is the art of putting aside differences to strengthen economic, political and cultural synergies between the EU and China in the years to come.

Lucie Qian Xia is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. She works on EU-China relations and diplomatic studies. She previously worked with the Delegation of the EU to China and think tanks in Brussels and Beijing.