EU-China ties fall short of expectations

Posted: September 19, 2012 in Global Times
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A new op-ed for the Global Times timed to come out alongside the EU-China Summit taking place in Brussels. The title is a bit at odds with the text I feel, but there we go. Also, their Chinese edition published my earlier article for them on EU power in Asia, for those who want to practice their Mandarin, check it out here. On another note, I have been honoured by the Diplomatic Courier magazine and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and chosen as one of their ‘Top 99 under 33 Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.’ Many thanks to them for putting me in such a distinguished group of friends and peers.

EU-China ties fall short of expectations

Global Times | 2012-9-18 20:25:03

By Raffaello Pantucci

Eight years have passed since noted sinologist David Shambaugh declared “Over time the EU-China relationship will become a new axis in world affairs.” As the 15th EU-China Summit is being held in Brussels, it is useful to pause and take stock of where the Sino-EU relations stand and to think ahead about what the relationship is likely to hold for the next administration in China. Since the giddy heights of 2004, the EU-China relationship has continued to flourish, though often its public face has been at odds with its private one.

First, the good news. Since 2004 when the EU became China’s largest trading partner and China the EU’s second, trade has continued to flourish. In 2004 total bilateral trade was 125.84 billion euros ($164.88). Nowadays, these numbers have grown to 428.7 billion euros in trade in goods, with a further 42.6 billion euros in services. And the EU clearly continues to remain a key target market for acquisitions by Chinese investors. On the eve of the summit, China Construction Bank Chairman Wang Hongzhang announced that his bank was looking to spend somewhere in the region of $15 billion on investments in “UK, Germany or France.”

Second, people-to-people exchanges continue apace. In 2010, there were some 120,000 Chinese students in Europe. That same year, some 2.5 million Chinese visited Europe in total. And coming the other way, China has long been a preferred destination of European tourists, and there are growing numbers of European students at Chinese universities, researchers at Chinese institutes, and European-owned restaurants and stores. When Chinese look to quality brands, it is luxury from Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada or Zegna they look for.

Third, China and the EU are doing increasing amounts of things together on the world stage. The most obvious example is the anti-piracy mission off Somalia where European and Chinese ships serve together to protect international shipping. Elsewhere in Africa, work is developing, but in November 2007, both sides committed to “more practical cooperation by the two sides through their respective existing cooperation mechanisms with Africa so as to contribute to Africa’s peace, stability and sustainable development.”

But it is not all wine and roses. There are tensions between the two: On Syria in particular a lack of consensus has led to blockage in the UN Security Council. While both agree climate change and environmental degradation is something they agree is negative, responses vary. And for all the trade back and forth, there remains a lack of trust between the two on certain trade matters and intellectual property rights questions.

It would also be disingenuous to not observe that the public rhetoric in the relationship has also taken a beating over the years. This got particularly bad in 2008 when protests in Europe around the Olympic torch relay resulted in a backlash against France in particular. But it is worth noting that even as the rhetoric got hot, trade between the EU and China remained strong – in fact, EU exports to China grew from 78.4 billion euros in 2008 to 82.4 billion euros in 2009.

Such tensions are normal within such a large and complex relationship. Recently, there has been a tendency to focus on the Beijing-Berlin axis as though this was the only relationship that mattered between the EU and China. The reality is that Germany is the largest economic player in the EU, a position that has been emphasized by the recent downturn that has affected others in Europe worse than Germany. So it is only natural that they should end up playing an outsized role in the EU’s relationship with one of its biggest trading partners.

As we approach the end of one chapter in EU-China relations, we have clearly not yet lived up to the high bar set by David Shambaugh in 2004. However, we have made considerable progress in a positive direction and laid strong foundations that can be built on by subsequent administrations.

The author is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an expert of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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