China and Europe: The futile quest for a strategic partnership
WASHINGTON -- Been there, done that. President Hu Jintao can be pleased with himself. His second and, presumably, last official visit to Washington went smoothly (no “Republic of China” national anthem played by the Americans on the White House lawn this time!). And his trip can plausibly be presented as moderately successful. For now, at least, the summit has stabilized the most important relationship in the world. Yet 2010, with China’s rude display of assertiveness in the South China Sea and its continuing support for North Korea, also clearly demonstrated how brittle the U.S.-Chinese relationship still is, and how much of a problem that constitutes not only for the two, but also for the rest of the world.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski got it right: the most worrying aspect about the state of the U.S.-Chinese relationship is its failure to address the broader problems of an increasingly unstable, turbulent world. Both governments, driven by their respective domestic constituencies, already have enough difficulties managing their bilateral problems, from currency revaluation to the conventional military arms race. There is simply not enough serious time and energy left for issues such as nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and on the Korean peninsula, global warming, or reform of the world economy's increasingly shaky institutional foundations. This failure to deliver on issues of global governance risks turning the relationship into a “lose-lose” situation—both America and China are likely to suffer if any of those global challenges seriously get out of hand.
Where does that leave Europe? The European Union does not have a bilateral relationship with China, but 28 such relationships. Each of the 27 EU member countries has its own China policy, as does the EU, which for years has been trying to develop a “strategic partnership” with Beijing to engage at eye-level and on all important issues of international relations, including security. Those efforts have led nowhere, and it is time to recognize that the EU relationship with China is basically economic, and not much else. One only need compare the international visibility and the substance of Hu’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama last week with the most recent EU - China summit (the 13th) in Brussels in October 2010 to see why this is so. In dealing with China, a large part of the international agenda today is political and even military, and Europe simply is not relevant in that sphere. This is different with economic issues, of course — European trade and foreign direct investments with China in 2009 were significantly larger than those of the United States, and they have also grown (even) more rapidly over the last decade than trade and investment between China and America. On those issues, moreover, the European Union does speak with one voice: Brussels’. The economic agenda of the two summits in Washington and in Brussels also looked remarkably similar; the European Union and the United States were both pushing China to let its currency rise, to remove barriers to its market, and to protect the intellectual property rights of Western companies.
Brussels has not been too successful so far with its economic agenda with China, but neither has the United States. The fact is that Chinese foreign economic policies are mostly shaped by China’s own agenda. What both Washington and Brussels can do—and the more they do so in a coordinated fashion, the more effective they will be—are basically two things: they can use access to their markets and their economic resources as levers to establish a level playing field and secure reciprocity, and they can persuade China to change its practices if and when those changes will be mutually beneficial. On this, the Europeans actually have been doing better than the United States. The EU has established a highly institutionalized framework for its economic dialogue with China, including not only regular summit meetings, but as many as 50 working groups with the Chinese on a wide variety of issues, ranging from intellectual property right protection to rule of law and human rights. Those working-level exchanges are important and valuable, as they offer opportunities for both sides to learn and to develop new approaches.
Beyond those modest but useful activities, however, the search for a strategic partnership between Europe and China should be abandoned. It is based on the pretence that all 28 European China policies can be aligned. That is quite unlikely to happen, for the simple reason that member state interests in China are, first, primarily economic and commercial and, second, divergent and often competing. If the EU really was serious about developing a common foreign policy (and it should be!), then it would focus on other, more promising issues than its relationship with China. The EU actually has been moderately successful in forging common policies on two important global challenges—taking a stronger role on nuclear non-proliferation (Iran) and on climate change, in particular. It.; should build on those successes and develop them further. To the extent it will succeed, it will also be able to strike a meaningful and balanced political (even “strategic,” if you like) relationship with Beijing, because the EU would then be taken seriously in Beijing. So far, it is not.
Hans Maull presently is a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, on leave as Professor of Foreign Policy and International Relations at the University of Trier, Germany. This Transatlantic Take will also appear in the DIGEST of www.deutsche.aussenpolitik.de
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