8th Aug 2020


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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Dalai Lama urges EU to get involved in Tibet dispute

Buddhist icon and Tibetan exile the Dalai Lama told MEPs on Thursday that Tibet was better off as part of China, but urged the EU to help the region gain greater autonomy, while attracting throngs of supporters and well-wishers in the EU capital.

Worrying rows over future EU chemicals policy

It is of utmost concern to the environmental health community that forces within the EU Commission are actively trying to push back against a European Green Deal that is supposed to put people's health at its core.


An open letter to the EPP on end of Hungary's press freedom

I hate to break it to you, but excuses have run out. You have to look at the images of sobbing journalists in Index's newsroom, and shoulder part of the blame. Your silence, your continued procrastination led to this.

Why EU beats US on green pandemic recovery

The United States recovery focused on a number of important issues, including unemployment benefits and funding for health care providers, but lacked any programs directed towards addressing pollution, renewable energy industries, and clean technology improvements.

Why hydrogen is no magic solution for EU Green Deal

Why is the EU Commission promoting a lose-lose (pay more, get less) strategy rather than the straightforward use of green electricity, where it will deliver bigger CO2-reductions and for less money?

News in Brief

  1. Germany breached rights of Madeleine McCann suspect
  2. EU offers trade perks to Lebanon
  3. Germany charges four ex-Audi chiefs on emissions cheating
  4. UK quarantines Belgium, as European infections climb
  5. Bulgaria's Borissov mulls resignation
  6. EU prolongs anti-dumping duties on Chinese steel
  7. Swedish economy contracted less during April to June
  8. EU offers help to Lebanon after port explosion

Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy

As with the German government – which presented its own hydrogen strategy last month – the European Commission and other EU institutions appear to be similarly intoxicated by the false promises of the gas industry.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. Iraqis paid €2,000 each agree to leave Greece
  2. EU's most sustainable islands are Danish 'Sunshine Islands'
  3. Worrying rows over future EU chemicals policy
  4. Rainbow flag protesters charged by Polish police
  5. An open letter to the EPP on end of Hungary's press freedom
  6. Renew Europe has a plan to combat gender-violence
  7. Why EU beats US on green pandemic recovery
  8. Azerbaijan ambassador to EU shared anti-George Floyd post

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us