EU-China relations: Disappointment after Copenhagen

Author: John Hemmings, RUSI

One thing is apparent: the great love affair between Europe and China is over.

Here in London and throughout the other major capitals of Europe, Copenhagen was the final straw for European policy-makers who advocated engagement with China, with their ideal of building China into the global order on ice. As Francois Gotement of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, before Copenhagen, European thinkers still believed that they could use soft power to influence China on a host of issues that Europe believed were mutual to both. After Copenhagen, European attitudes have hardened and governments are reconsidering their approach to China.

Were European expectations of China too high? After all, China has never really followed US or European policy leads. Consider the value-based foreign policy put forward by post-Cold War Europe in the 1990s, ‘the responsibility to protect’ which sought to proscribe state behaviour, compared with China’s position on Kosovo. By emphasising Serbian sovereignty over its treatment of the Kosovars, China appeared to be the conservative power, defending a traditional order of state rights, whereas Europeans seemed to be trying to reshape the international order, making the concept of sovereignty conditional on good governance. The depth of the Chinese victory was not realised at the time, but in essence, China denied proponents of good governance the authority and legitimacy of the UN Security Council.

Over the last ten years, China has deliberately countered European efforts to promote good governance. In Darfur in 2003-9, and in Burma in 2007, China put itself squarely on the side of states who were violently suppressing their citizens, while critics say that its record in sub-Saharan Africa has broadly followed this trend. Europe was ready to embrace the future it seemed, while China was only too happy to wave the old Westphalian banner.

By 2007, European policy-makers appeared to wake up this reality and changed tact. If China would not cooperate on value-based issues, surely it would be willing to work with Europe on more core security issues, like sea lane security, climate change, and nuclear non-proliferation. Indeed, Iran and North Korea appeared to provide examples where China was willing to cooperate, but often as not, China has proven to be the stumbling block over efforts to impose sanctions on Tehran. Similarly, China appeared earnest about dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and actually did approve UN sanctions of North Korea after the nuclear test of 2006. But as of writing, there are rumours that China is considering a US$10billion financial package to Pyongyang which would completely undermine the sanctions regime.

The tension for the US and Europe has always been between binding China into the current framework while ensuring that China does not use this new leverage to undermine the order. There is another interpretation, which says that China may simply not be ready to act according to its size. Andrew Small, a China expert from German Marshall Fund has said that in many ways China is behaving like a ‘global free rider’, using the international system to maximise its freedom of action, and backing policies which stem from very narrow domestic concerns or national strategy considerations.

Whatever the case, Copenhagen has been a resounding, and disappointing, lesson: Europe will have to learn to work around China.

This is not impossible. The EU can do this in a number of small but vital ways: by developing and maintaining common positions vis-à-vis China. While this is easier said than done, it should become an aim of foreign ministries in Brussels. European states can also continue to develop strong trade ties with other rising powers. Brazil and India are two members of the BRIC with which Europeans have historical links and values. That is not to say that China should npt be important to Europe, but that it should not become the mainstay of EU policy on Asia. Indeed, the EU has almost no political presence in Japan or South Korea, two major players in Asia with similar political values. This is lamentable since in Japan’s case, it remains the world’s largest creditor nation and has a GDP equivalent to China’s. The EU would do well to cultivate relations with these states, as well as with ASEAN, the regional body in South Asia.

In a policy brief for German Marshall Fund, Michael Green recently suggested that US-China relations would improve when the US re-energised its relationship with Japan. Similarly, it is highly likely that EU-China relations would also improve significantly if the EU developed strong ties with other major players in the region. Indeed, Brussels would find many doors in the region already open.

John Hemmings is Studies Co-ordinator at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)