The EU adopted a positive new strategic approach based on reciprocity, but it has to overcome some member states’ bilateral tendencies, which were reinforced by China’s “bond diplomacy”
The EU wants to engage with China at the highest level and as equal partners. Currently there is an annual EU-China Summit, a strategic dialogue between High Representative Catherine Ashton and State Councillor Dai Bingguo, a high-level economic dialogue at European Commissioner and Chinese vice-premier level, and beneath that many sectoral dialogues. However, despite these contacts, it is unclear whether the EU has access to the real centres of power in China.
In December, the European Council adopted a new approach to China as a “strategic partner” based on reciprocity – which, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said, is “not a bad word”. But this positive new approach was hampered by the ongoing bilateral reflexes of member states. For example, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and Romania often cater to Beijing instead of sending joint European messages on issues such as human rights. Meanwhile, larger countries such as France, the UK and, to some extent, Germany think that because of their size they can also gain more from bilateral dialogues with China than from common European approaches. The divisions defined in ECFR’s Power Audit of EU-China Relations, published in 2009, are now further reinforced by Chinese “bond diplomacy” towards countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece.
In addition to this lack of unity, Europe also struggled to define priorities to match the Chinese “core interests”. As a result, it did not make consistent counter-demands, for example on the arms embargo, market economy status or the One China policy. Poor execution presented a further difficulty: one analysis of the failure of the EU-China summit in 2010 was that reciprocity was applied too bluntly and without the necessary preparation that negotiations with China require. There was also still confusion and a lack of coordination at a bureaucratic level between a new EU foreign minister and two presidents. In short, the EU went in the right direction – but slowly.