Friday

27th Jan 2023

Opinion

Europe fast, China slow

  • "The EU needs to recognise that China has very different views on issues that Europeans hold dear" (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Baroness Ashton is in China once again to help clarify a little better what exactly it is that a strategic partnership between China and the EU should look like. Since its declaration in 2003, thinkers across the EU and China have puzzled together and apart over exactly how to implement this grand rhetoric, with no discernible conclusion. The reason for this: both sides have very different interpretations of what this means.

During a recent research interview in Beijing, a connected and eminent Chinese Euro-watcher told me "China's meaning of strategic is different to the EU's: China's interpretation is we agree on strategic issues…in China this means we are thinking in long-term. Dealing with single issues is not strategic." This stands somewhat in contrast to Baroness Ashton's comments on the eve of her latest trip in which she told the China Daily, "The EU and China hold a strategic partnership. That means that we will not only talk about bilateral relations, but also about the main challenges the world is facing today." China sees a realist "long-term" view while Europe sees "today."

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This is an important distinction to make, as it underlies a lot of the misunderstandings that are often visible between the EU and China. The EU thinks in terms which are linked to the here and now, while China prefers to think in the longer term seeing the short-term as unproductive. As a Chinese policy planner put it to me when talking specifically about Iran, "more speed, no result." Unfortunately, this rather clashes with the sense of urgency that Europeans often see on issues in comparison to their Chinese counterparts. Iran and climate change are just two examples.

Since she has been in office, Baroness Ashton has made robust statements about the need for Iran to cease its nuclear programme highlighting in remarks in Cairo in March that the EU position "is based on the firm belief that an Iran with nuclear weapons risks triggering a proliferation cascade throughout the Middle East. This is the last thing that this region needs. A nuclear weapons free Middle East remains a European goal."

On this last point, the Chinese would undoubtedly agree. In discussions experts and officials alike highlight the fact that a nuclear-free world is a goal that we can all agree on. However, Beijing does not see the same sort of urgency around Iran in the short-term. A report in February by the International Crisis Group based on extensive interviews pointed out that, "China does not view Iran's nuclear programme as an immediate threat," a view that is supported by more recent interviews in Beijing and Shanghai.

Missing the bigger picture?

This fundamental difference means that while the EU feels that something needs to be done now and the recent sanctions were the clear next step, China instead thinks that there is a "need to be more patient" and that sanctions are going to be counter-productive. In a particularly blunt conversation, one influential scholar told me in July that the Middle East is "your problem" and that anyway there is very little that China can do in this situation. His view was that the focus on nuclear issues is perceived by some to be missing the bigger point which is that a more comprehensive solution is needed.

In many ways, a similar picture can be painted for climate change where broadly speaking both the EU and China recognize that it is a problem, but they see it on very different timelines. Or to put it more accurately, see it at different positions in the ranking of current issues to be dealt with.

According to the European Commission Environment website, "Climate change is already happening and represents one of the greatest environmental, social and economic threats facing the planet." At the Nanjing EU-China Summit last year Commission President Barosso highlighted this urgency further while pushing the US and China to do more "We are asking all sides to do everything they can to contribute to a comprehensive and global agreement," he said. This seemed to echo Premier Wen Jiabao's earlier comments to the Financial Times that "the Chinese government gives top priority to meeting the challenge of climate change."

Climate change or poverty - one issue at a time

But at the same time, repeated Chinese statements have highlighted that economic growth is a bigger priority than climate change. In the wake of the Copenhagen conference, He Jingjun, a prolific analyst working for the Chongqing government, was quoted as saying, "the Chinese government must continue to prioritise development, economic growth and social stability" over climate change. This was reinforced to me in conversation with an influential Beijing academic who said the government can address either climate change or poverty – both at the same time is simply unrealistic. His unvarnished conclusion was that "China is not going to do what West wants on climate change."

There is even a school of thought, described to me by a senior foreign policy thinker at Peking University, that the entire climate change issue might have been concocted by the West to stunt Chinese growth. In his view, if climate change was as urgent and threatening a problem as the EU claims, we would not be haggling over technology transfers.

It is hard to know how widespread this view is, but it is certainly the case that there is a general sense that China is being asked too much in climate change terms. One official repeated the old Chinese line that "China is a developing country," and that other "important actors" need come to the table on the issue if it is to be solved.

But this sort of debate is one which frustrates European policymakers who repeatedly refer to climate change as an immediate problem needing to be addressed at forums like Copenhagen. As Commission President Barosso put it: "we cannot negotiate with the reality of climate change." For Europe the here-and-now is the priority, while for China, it is obviously a less immediate crisis.

On her visit to Guiyang today, Baroness Ashton was quoted in the Chinese press as saying that "the EU needs to know more about China." The context of this may have been a general sense of understanding of the great wealth and population diversity that can be found across this great country, but it is equally clear that the EU needs to recognise that China has very different views on issues that Europeans hold dear.

The writer is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), where he is working on a project looking at EU-China relations as an EU STFP Fellow.

Disclaimer

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

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