The relationship between the EU and China is in flux as the balance of power between them shifts. Within a remarkably short space of time, China has gone from being a distant, developing country to a global power that plays an important role in all aspects of European policymaking. In particular, the EU has struggled to adjust to China’s greater assertiveness across a range of foreign-policy issues since the economic crisis began in 2008. The EU wants China to liberalise its economy, improve the human rights of its citizens and take a greater stake in global governance. But while China is much more capable of negotiating its economic and political interests cohesively, EU member states and institutions face a structural difficulty in coordinating their approach to China that other powers such as the United States do not. In some ways, the Lisbon Treaty has made this structural asymmetry worse: China can now exploit differences between two presidents and one high representative, not to mention the European Parliament, which now also plays a role in foreign policy.
2010 was a sobering year for the EU as the reality of a new, more assertive China – and the EU’s limited leverage over it – set in. After a wake-up call at the Copenhagen climate change summit at the end of 2009, Europeans this year began to try to find new ways to deal with the Chinese. The EU took some important steps in the right direction. It reassessed its “strategic partnership” with China and foreign ministers even had a debate on China for the first time since 2005, when they discussed the arms embargo. High Representative Catherine Ashton also had her first strategic dialogue with Dai Bingguo, the Chinese state councillor for foreign policy. The December Council meeting adopted a new approach based on reciprocity, leverage and trade-offs. The aim was to define Europe’s principal interests and negotiate these with China – an approach that followed the recommendations that ECFR made in its Power Audit of EU-China Relations, which was published in April 2009
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