How Chinese Identity Politics Shapes Its Depictions of Europe

Article excerpt

Abstract

Sino-EU relations are officially described as a 'comprehensive strategic partnership' and are bound to play a key role in shaping the character of the newly-emerging multi-polar system. At present, the EU is China's biggest trading partner, while China is the EU's largest source of imports and second largest two-way trading partner. However, while recognising such closeness, this paper will adopt a slightly more critical stance towards Sino-EU relations. I analyse how internal political debates within China influences how leading Chinese actors construct various images of Europe. Central to this analysis will be Chinese attempts to create counter narratives of both colonial history and of the structure of the state system as a way of challenging dominant European conceptions of order - that is to say, the paper will describe China's efforts to launch an ideational challenge to the Westphalian system.

Keywords: Sino-EU relations, Chinese identity politics, post-colonialism, century of humiliation, Zheng He, tianxia

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1. Introduction

At first glance the EU and China seem to be a natural match: each side claims a long proud history and a perception of themselves as the sui generis of international politics. Each side is also maintained by a large bureaucracy with miles of red tape. However, misunderstandings between China and the EU, as well as its Member States, have been common. Differing views of human rights, sovereignty and democracy, as well as differences in how to promote development have all been crucial factors (Pan, 2010; Chatham House, 2011; Lisbonne-de Vergeron, 2007). For almost half a century Sino-European relations were defined by the Cold War. Whereas in the early 1960's China denounced the European Economic Community (EEC) as the 'economic arm of the aggressive NATO bloc', Beijing eventually came to see Europe as a 'grey zone' between the Soviet Union and the United States (Scott, 2007: 26). As a result, China established initial diplomatic relations with individual European states, starting with France in 1964, Italy in 1970 and the UK and Germany in 1972. Beijing formally established diplomatic ties with the EEC in 1975. From then until 1989 relations were largely determined by shared economic interests and China's opening up policy of 1978. After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, EU and its member states adopted a series of sanctions against China, including a suspension of mutual high level visits, curtailment of new development aid and loan guarantees, a temporary stoppage of new large joint ventures and a cessation of military cooperation. Over time most of these restrictive measures softened. By 2003, in its first EU Policy Paper, China was able to declare that 'common ground between China and the EU far outweighs their disagreements' and that 'China-EU relations now are better than any time in history' (State Council, 2003: 2). As the Policy Paper makes clear, today China views the EU strategic partner.

In this paper I will first explore the changing nature of economic ties between China and Europe as a means to further investigate how China today perceives and depicts the Europe as a political actor. Whilst China in no way views the EU as a global hegemon, we will nonetheless see that many within China give focus to Europe's role as a colonial power and its support of the Westphalian state system. The paper relies on a conceptual framework which takes seriously the role of identity and culture and international relations. Accordingly, my analysis of Chinese views of EUrope takes as its starting point Suzuki's observation that having been 'coerced into European International Society' by gunboat diplomacy, it is no wonder that today, as China rises, it will begin to reject linear and homogenous understandings of what it means to be civilized in the international system (Suzuki 2009: 11). I conclude by arguing that as Chinese power grows, EUrope faces a loss of centrality. …

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