Saturday

21st Jan 2017

Opinion

The EU-China show will go on

  • A sport demonstration at the China meets Europe Hamburg Summit in November. Genuine cross-cultural exchanges are key to promoting mutual understanding, says Lucie Qian Xia. (Photo: Hamburg Chamber of Commerce)

The EU and China have entered uncharted diplomatic waters in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the US presidential election. They must embrace free and fair trade.

Trade is the DNA of the modern world economy and the anchor of the EU-China relationship. The EU is the world’s largest trading power.

China is the world’s second largest economy, while the EU and China together form the second-largest economic cooperation in the world.

It is in the interest of both China and the EU to defend free trade and to energise the multilateral trade order.

Yet, we don’t just need more trade, but more fair trade.

Fair trade ensures that investment flows are mutual and reciprocal, and can thus contribute to greater economic integration between the EU and China.

The need to foster fairness in business, to respect and protect intellectual property and ensure equal market access between the EU and China, has never been greater.

As Jyrki Katainen, vice-president of the European Commission stated: "EU-China economic relationship is overall very positive," but a "comprehensive and balanced" EU-China agreement on investment is needed to allow both sides to invest in each other with more "confidence".

Solid political logic

If EU-China relations were to stand the test of time, both sides need to adapt to the fluidity of the global diplomatic environment, and seek new narratives to engage with each other and with the rest of the world in times of strategic uncertainty.

The political logic that underpinned the establishment of the diplomatic relationship between the EU and China in 1975 still holds true today, as was epitomised in the speech by the then Vice-President of the European Commission Sir Christopher Soames: "both China and the EU have much to gain from the closer and more confident relationship which now opens up before us."

This solid political logic should serve to steer the future of EU-China diplomacy. This would entail the EU and China developing diplomatic strategies that focus on the pursuit of a strategic vision for both sides and a potent narrative that provides principles and guidelines to shape the relationship in an increasingly networked world.

The EU and China would need to clearly define their own strategic interests and shared foreign policy priorities; moreover, regular political contacts should be increased through effective diplomatic mechanisms to maintain the momentum.

Cultural diplomacy

Strong political and economic will may be the engine for the deepening and broadening of the EU-China relationship, but perhaps cultural diplomacy is the most powerful tool to bring both China and Europe closer.

China and Europe epitomise two distinct civilisational entities with different histories and diplomatic cultures. Cultural difference often comes to the fore as a central facet of the encounter between the EU and China.

Hard talks on trade and politics do not suffice to bring two regions, as different as the EU and China, truly together; hearts and minds do not truly bond based solely on cold facts, but more from shared sentiments and visions.

Genuine cross-cultural exchanges are thus the key to promoting mutual understanding, develop trust and unlock the full potential of EU-China relations. The stubborn, at times suffocating, cultural preconceptions and prejudices should be replaced by resolute and robust openness and acceptance.

In this vein, the third pillar of the EU-China dialogue - the People-to-People Dialogue - or events like the Hamburg summit last month have proven to be an effective vehicle bringing both parties into direct contact with each other to encourage frank dialogue and discussion.

The Hamburg summit embodies the pathway that China and the EU are committed to deepening cultural understanding, foster mutual respect, and willingness to work together. As Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister proclaimed at the summit: The show must, and will, go on.

Lucie Qian Xia is doctoral researcher at the department of international development at the University of Oxford

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