21st Jan 2019


Why the China summit didn't happen and why it matters

  • European leaders need to realise that China has many faces (Photo: EUobserver)

It is mountaineering season in high politics. Heads of government are racing from summit to summit, circling the globe in a desperate attempt to stem mushrooming global emergencies.

The most curious of all recent summits was the one that did not happen. On Monday (1 December) Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was scheduled to meet the EU Troika at the 11th EU-China Summit in Lyon, France.

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In a bold move, following a quarrel over Tibet, the Chinese side cancelled the summit, clearly demonstrating that EU-China relations are far from being as weatherproof as the title "strategic partnership" might suggest.

One needs to look beyond the headlines to see what went wrong, and to figure out how to fix a partnership that has great problem-solving potential.

The row over Tibet is only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Over the last decade, at the bureaucratic level, EU-China relations have silently deepened, building an expansive network of co-operation that deals with an entire spectrum of global woes.

Expert co-operation has boomed in recent years, and has contributed to the creation of a system of bureaucratic collaboration which, if used correctly, represents a powerful tool for a common problem solving capacity able to address problems that go far beyond the concerns raised over a summit dinner.

However, EU political leaders have failed to invest in building an equally strong relationship at the diplomatic and political levels.

Stated differently, Europe continues to lack a truly strategic approach to EU-China relations. With the top political rapport representing the weakest link in the relationship, spectacular breakdowns such as the cancellation of the summit should hardly come as unexpected.

Understanding the dynamics of China

Rather than investing in a sound strategic relationship at the political level, EU leaders all too often go it alone and use misperceptions and misrepresentations of China so as to pander to domestic audiences.

In order to build a sound strategic approach, understanding the dynamics of Chinese ambiguity will be the key.

This is more easily said than done, as China readily accommodates all simplistic preconceptions and corroborates every bias with vivid proof.

You can find the sable rattling PLA general who threatens the use of nuclear weapons against the US to defend China's claim over Taiwan, while you can just as easily find the softer spoken official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who will reiterate China's "no first use" policy and its commitment to nuclear disarmament.

You can find the administrator from the Ministry of Environmental Protection who will bluntly tell you that the impact of climate change will leave China's economy in shambles if nothing is done to reduce carbon emissions. Yet, you will also hear the firm stance of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, insisting on China's entitlement to a path of economic development unhampered by the ecological responsibilities that developed nations have evaded in the past.

China has many faces

European leaders need to realise that China has many faces, some scary and some encouraging. Long gone are the days where a handful of elderly men single-handedly determined China's fate.

In fact, an astonishing diversity of opinions has emerged among the Chinese political elite - a diversity that EU political leaders rarely see, let alone acknowledge.

Rather, they engage in opportunistic behaviour, criticising harshly when domestic political capital is to be gained and appeasing sheepishly when economic considerations supersede.

The current leaders of France and Germany are cases in point. The result is a relationship that is strategic only in name and wastefully irritable in practice.

However tempting populist headlines might be European leaders need to make this nuanced picture of China both the basis for a strategic political approach with China, as well as the foundations for a productive dialogue with their domestic constituencies.

The EU has the potential to cash in on its real leverage over China - its collective economic power.

To do so, it will have to learn how to operate the existing bureaucratic instruments in a more political manner and to avoid constant high-level disturbances that distract mid-level administrators from doing their job.


For the EU political leadership now is the time to smarten up and to start seeing Chinese policy making for what it is: an intricate system featuring a multitude of attitudes, competing interests and bureaucratic infighting.

By recognising that China is neither all dangerous nor all sweet-tempered, the EU has to learn how to strategically deal with China's ambiguities.

On the one hand, one-sidedly highlighting China's more dangerous tendencies only serves to feed the beast mobilising resentment against the EU that can be used by factions within the Chinese system that do not look favourably on collective problem solving.

On the other hand, only appeasing China, largely exonerating it from international responsibilities, is equally dangerous, as it will render obsolete internal players that do want China to become a productive force in global affairs.

To empower those who favour China becoming a real partner and responsible global player, Europe must consistently treat China as an equal ally with equal responsibilities and equal rights.

Integrating China into pre existing processes will not suffice. China will need to have a say in drafting new solutions for new problems. Only then will the internal factions embracing China's responsibility be able to claim true ownership over Chinese engagement in international affairs, providing them with a stick to keep the beast in check.

Ultimately, all attempts to turn China into a responsible stakeholder will fail so long as we are unwilling to truly see eye-to-eye, and to become joint stakeholders in a new system of international collaboration.

Björn Conrad and Stephan Mergenthaler are researchers at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, an independent non-profit think tank focusing on effective and accountable governance, where they co-lead the "EU, China and global governance" program.

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