The EU got some of the meetings it wanted with high-level Chinese officials. Meanwhile, against the background of the euro crisis, cash-strapped member states competed with each other for Chinese investment.
The EU aims to engage with China through high-level channels and a plethora of sectoral dialogues beneath it. In 2011, a formal system seemed to have been established for high-level EU–China meetings: European Council President Herman Van Rompuy met Hu Jintao; European Commission President José Manuel Barroso met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao; and High Representative Catherine Ashton met State Councillor Dai Bingguo. But the urgency of the euro crisis undermined last year’s moves towards developing a “strategic partnership” with China. As discussions focused on China’s potential role as a saviour of individual member states, the EU–China summit was postponed. However, Van Rompuy went to China in May – his first visit outside the EU – and met with Hu and Wen and Hu’s likely successor Xi Jinping. In October, Ashton met Dai and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and discussed recent foreign-policy issues such as North Africa, Syria and Iran. She also met with Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie. Thus the EU got most of what it wanted in terms of high-level meetings, although the annual summit and the equally important High-Level Economic Dialogue were postponed because of emergency meetings on the euro.
Meanwhile, however, member states continued to compete with each other to strengthen their bilateral relationships with China. The UK stepped up its own infrastructure co-operation. Germany, the biggest European stakeholder in the trade relationship between China and the EU, even held a full-scale joint cabinet meeting with China – a meeting that some saw as the “real” EU–China summit. Poland was the last of the big six in Europe to establish a bilateral Strategic Partnership, in December. While paying lip service to the EU institutions, China was happy to do business with member states, particularly indebted ones. In June, following the €12 billion purchase of Borsodchem, a Hungarian chemicals factory, Wen visited Budapest. In his speech, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán talked of a “long-lasting alliance” with China.