Academic journal article China: An International Journal

China-EU Relations: Strategic Partnership at a Crossroads

Academic journal article China: An International Journal

China-EU Relations: Strategic Partnership at a Crossroads

Article excerpt

China-EU relations have been stable and steadily growing since the mid-1990s, prompting significant optimism in both China and Europe until a few years ago. The momentum of the China-EU comprehensive engagement was so impressive post 9/11, particularly in the wake of the Iraqi war, that the United States began to worry that the China-EU partnership would weaken the transatlantic alliance. (1) In 2004, David Shambaugh, a seasoned China watcher, even mooted that China and Europe might forge an axis in global politics. (2) Others speculated whether China and the EU would attempt to develop an "exclusive partnership". (3) Recently, however, bilateral ties have been challenged by a number of problems. Sino-European relations are becoming increasingly more fluid and unpredictable. Observers who had been optimistic now start to warn of a downward spiral in Sino-European ties. (4) Other scholars are questioning whether China and the EU can really join hands to shape a new world order. (5) Indeed, nowadays, negative reports and not-so-sanguine views frequently appear in news reports, various forums and the remarks of political leaders. The fallout from the Olympics torch relay in several European cities and the acrimonious rhetorical exchanges between China and many European countries on Tibet in 2008 were perhaps the best indicator of the changing dynamics in China-Europe relations.

How do we understand the emerging dynamics in Sino-European relations? Is the Sino-European relationship inevitably moving towards an era of friction and contention, or will it be able to overcome the current challenges to get back to a new round of positive interactions? This article attempts to address these issues by thoroughly examining the major issues that are likely to continue to shape Sino-European ties in the years to come. The key factors that have shaped and are likely to continue to play a significant role in China-EU ties, notably common economic and strategic interests are discussed, as well as some of the negative trends that have emerged in bilateral relations in recent years. These issues include differences in values, frictions in economic relations and the weakening convergence of strategic interests, which are best epitomised in the EU's 2006 policy paper toward China. (6) Attempts to reconcile all these divergent interests are complicated by the inherent institutional weaknesses of the EU, the disunity among EU member states and the fact that the EU does not have sufficient hard power leverages in dealing with a rising China.

More profoundly, perhaps, the EU-China relationship is not guided by any clear direction because the previous modus operandi has run out of steam and needs to be re-examined. And this re-examination process gets entangled with the changed circumstances, such as the growing Chinese power and influence in Europe and other parts of the world, especially in the context of the current financial/economic crisis. (7) It is argued here that a sense of cautious optimism perhaps best reflects the reality in China-EU relations. China-Europe ties are entering a new period in which both sides will be more willing to raise issues of different concerns and interests, but at the same time will attempt to maintain a normal partnership. Cooperative relations fraught with friction and contention are likely to be the reality in Sino-European relations in the near future.

China-EU Relations: Economic and Strategic Underpinnings

Overview of Relations since the Mid-1990s

Between 1949 when the PRC was founded and the late 1980s, the relations between China and Western Europe (and Eastern Europe to a lesser extent) were largely shaped by Cold War international dynamics, particularly by China's changing ties with the two superpowers. China and the EU set up official ties in 1975. Over the following decade or so, dealing with the Russian bear was the common strategic goal for China and Western Europe as China's late leader Deng Xiaoping told the visiting European Commission President Roy Jenkins in February 1979, "You hold the bear by its forepaws where he bites, and we hold him by the hind paws where he kicks . …

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