Monday

21st Jan 2019

Opinion

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 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join 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.

Eye-to-eye

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.

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.

Salvini and Kaczynski - the new 'axis' powers?

Populists and Eurosceptics are slowly realising that the goal of dismantling the EU is not only unrealistic, costly and unpopular - but also deprives them of valuable opportunities to accumulate political capital and exert influence.

How to troll the European Parliament elections

The May 2019 European parliament elections will take place in a context which make a very promising ground for protest votes and extreme views, aided by bots and algorithms.

On Morocco, will the EU ignore its own court?

If the European parliament votes in favour of the new Morocco agreement without knowing that it complies with the European Court of Justice judgement, how can it demand that other countries respect international law and their own courts?

Trump's wall vs Europe's sea

Though we would never admit it, the only difference between Trump and the EU is we don't need a wall - because we're 'fortunate' enough to have the Mediterranean.

Migration and May elections - time to get facts right

If misinformation in the field of migration can bring a government down, as in the recent case of Belgium following the country's adoption of the UN migration pact, then it can doubtless produce a populist majority in the European parliament.

News in Brief

  1. EU trade commissioner asks for green light for US talks
  2. Slovakia's commissioner takes unpaid leave to run for presidency
  3. Minority elects Lofven as prime minister of Sweden
  4. Putin opposes EU prospects of Serbia and Kosovo
  5. Tsipras launches campaign to ratify Macedonia deal
  6. US-EU meeting in doubt after Trump cancels plane
  7. Germany and China to sign pact on finance cooperation
  8. Labour divided on second Brexit vote plan

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. Salvini and Kaczynski - the new 'axis' powers?
  2. Seven member states miss climate plan deadline
  3. Aachen treaty and Brexit endgame This WEEK
  4. Germany led way on EU rights protection
  5. How to troll the European Parliament elections
  6. MEPs in Strasbourg: everywhere but the plenary
  7. Brexit delay 'reasonable', as May tries cross-party talks
  8. MEPs allow Draghi's membership of secretive bank group

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  2. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  3. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  6. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  8. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  10. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  11. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  12. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us