Handling the Chinese: Europe should take lessons from Washington

Posted: February 2, 2011 in European Council on Foreign Relations
Tags: , , , , ,

A rather belatedly posted piece on the ECFR website looking at EU-China relations comparing them to US-China. Am finishing up a longer paper on this which will hopefully draw out some useful ideas for people. In the meantime, any suggestions or things that I am missing would be very welcome.

Handling the Chinese: Europe should take lessons from Washington

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI – 24 JAN 11

President Hu is no doubt pleased about how his trip to Washington went. Aside from some translator issues, there were no embarrassing moments and it looked to the world like a meeting between two of the world’s most powerful leaders. From the American side too there is certainly relief that things went so well – some concessions were given by the Chinese on DPRK and indigenous innovation, a few big deals were signed and the press walked away assessing that the President had pressured the Chinese on human rights.

Contrast this with the last EU-China Summit last October, which resulted in Premier Wen Jiaobao being irritated, a press conference being cancelled and a scuffle over some journalists being excluded, which was read by the press as evidence of Chinese authoritarianism abroad. The only reason this embarrassment was so quickly brushed under the carpet was the almost total absence of any meaningful media coverage of what takes place in Brussels. If there ever was a signal that Europe’s approach to China was broken, hopefully this is it.

Some in Europe will disagree with this harsh assessment, highlighting that the EU is able to work at a mechanical and practical level with their Chinese counterparts. The EU is China’s biggest trade partner and discussions at a trade or economic level are sophisticated and effective. Furthermore, the deals signed in America are on a par with the deals signed when President Hu went to Paris last year or when David Cameron went to Beijing.

But those deals were at a bilateral, member state level, and while it is true that some very important discussions take place at an EU-China level on trade, IPR and tariffs, all of these are quite practical discussions that are in everyone’s interests. Nations will always try to find ways to trade and sell things to each other. The reason that the Chinese reaction to their DC trip was so much more positive than that EU-China Summit was that there was clear evidence of Washington taking Chinese concerns seriously and effort was put into making sure the event looked good.

In the lead up to the meeting, Beijing was repeatedly visited by senior American diplomats. Chinese officialdom was told about what was going to happen and how it would happen. The issues on the table were raised and repeated, so President Hu knew what he was going to be facing long before he got to the White House. China was worried about how the meeting would play given previous humiliations when the President has visited the White House, and the US made sure none of the hiccups of the past took place. This resulted in a good event from which both sides were able to walk away with their heads held high.

In stark contrast, when Premier Wen went to Brussels for the summit he was presented late with a list of demands that the EU expected as outcomes from the meeting, and told that the market economy status question which he thought had finally been resolved was not to be concluded this time. At a business meeting during his visit (which at least some Chinese diplomats counted as a success!), Premier Wen finally lost his temper and went off-script to warn Europe not to “join the choir” of those telling China to re-evaluate. The disaster was such that the final press conference of the summit had to be cancelled.

Clearly, Brussels failed to do all the necessary diplomatic footwork. This was no doubt in part due to the fact that the EU was then in the midst of the big reshuffle, as Catherine Ashton figured out her role and the EEAS was drafted. But it would be too easy to blame it all on this, and the reality is that the EU still fails to get what it is that it needs to do if it wants to be taken seriously by the Chinese.

China is serious about wanting market economy status from the EU and the arms embargo lifted. Neither of these things may seem of much tangible import – MES will be irrelevant in four years anyway and the arms restrictions in place at a member state level are stronger than the embargo – but to China they would be a clear message that Europe recognises they are important to China and are wiling to give them over even though they are politically thorny at home. This optic is important to the Chinese, and the EU is giving no sign of having taken this on board.

In 2004, the lifting of the arms embargo was described as a “done deal,” and then nothing happened (everyone believes this was due to American pressure). In early 2010, the new Spanish Presidency of the EU hinted that the time might have finally come, but others rapidly corrected them. Then, late in 2010, a paper leaked out in which Catherine Ashton suggested that the embargo was “a major impediment,” and that a “way forward” needed to be designed. But in early 2011, while Li Keqiang was in the UK, stories emerged of David Cameron’s rage at the possibility, suggesting the idea was once again dead.

This vacillation on something that China repeatedly says it holds dear is seen by Beijing as a slap in the face. Couple this with European behaviour on the Galileo satellite project – China was disinvited having initially been brought in as a senior partner on a project to create an alternative to the US-controlled GPS system – and with Europe’s continued failure to recognise China’s market economy status, and it is easy to see that Wen’s behaviour at the messy meeting in October was the result of accumulated anger. So while Hu went to Washington and had the red carpet rolled out for him, Wen went to Brussels and ended up having to cancel a press conference. No one went home happy and now a higher hill will have to be climbed to ensure the next one looks better.

It is flogging a dead horse to continually criticise Europe about its incapacity for unified decision-making, but European leaders should at least be able to organise the optics of a meeting with China. Once they have resolved this they can start to seriously think about what it is they want from a “strategic partnership” with China.

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