Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

China and European unity

Reading Time: 5 mins

In Brief

The EU can work together – at least when it is pushed together. China’s heavy-handed effort to get European nations to skip the Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo last week did the trick.

Not only did member states show up but Serbia and Ukraine, both countries with EU ambitions, were encouraged to show up as well. Yet this was atypical of a relationship with the EU in which China, with newfound power, has found it easy to divide-and-rule.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

While the European Council focused on the Euro crisis this week, away from the limelight, EU leaders were also adopting a new China policy. In fact, discussion about this policy began four months ago when EU leaders took up Europe-China relations. Then the issue was overshadowed by the internal EU topic of the day: Romas. Dealing with China was relegated to short talks and coffee breaks.

This story, unfortunately, reveals a lot about the EU’s strategic outreach. The EU looks inward and seems more destined to be an enlarged Switzerland than the missing link between the US and Asia in the shaping of global affairs. China has recognized this, and increasingly sees Europe as an investment opportunity rather than as a global partner.

On a recent trip to Beijing, I met a range of prominent Chinese officials and academics and not one asked me how Europe intended to influence the revised US strategy toward Afghanistan or about European views on the upcoming referendum in Sudan. To Beijing, Europe is not so much post-modern but post-global.

How can the EU’s strategic shrinkage can be reversed? EU Council President van Rompuy’s comment in September on the need for ‘reciprocity’ — giving to China only when the EU gets something back — was a good start. In line with this, the new draft EU trade policy looks at the possibility of closing off the European public procurement market if China does not give the EU reciprocal access to its market. This tough EU language has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. Chinese interlocutors ask about it repeatedly. China understands a clear but consistent message.

But by itself, this new approach will not be enough. The EU must pursue a set of commonly agreed aims. Europe needs to set urgent, coherent strategic priorities and set aside strategic patience and trust. The process of setting new trade policy priorities needs to be extended to the political realm. Member states must select a few priorities on which they really want to engage with China. Non-proliferation, climate change, good governance and human rights are good candidates.

In addition, Europe must work together to present a united front. Resisting the bilateral twitch is difficult. Bilateral visits like UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent trip to China and Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Paris are locked in the logic of bilateral trade promotion. But seeing links to China mainly as a bilateral issue rather than a European-wide interest means accepting a weak position vis-a-vis Beijing. China deals with Europe as it is, not how we dream it is. While European states pursue their own agendas, China will get free traders in the Northern countries to block moves that it sees as too strong, while ensuring that indifferent Southerners dilute policies on human rights.

A purely bilateral vocabulary seems increasingly anachronistic when an Airbus is assembled with sub-components from all over Europe. Member countries must acknowledge that signing up to the EU is a binding commitment. A high-level EU official conceded that the just adopted internal strategy paper was kept relatively bland because of suspicion that it would be leaked to China. As a result, it couldn’t contain a more detailed game plan for how to secure EU interests through trade-offs and linkages.

The EU’s bilateral instinct can be overcome. The internal pressure for multilateral compliance should be stronger once the External Action Service is up and running. But the EAS is no deus ex machina. Member states must be continuously engaged to pursue reciprocal engagement with China. The European Parliament, with its new say over foreign policy, could play an important role by naming and shaming member states that subvert the EU’s strategic priorities in exchange for bilateral advantages.

A joined-up China policy is needed urgently, events tend to overtake the EU while it ponders policy. This year, it was Chinese investments in Europe, particularly in government bonds from Greece to Spain. China’s investment in Europe is a natural diversification from a dollar overdose. Chinese investment should be welcome, but the EU should be an intermediary so that this process is not framed as a bilateral favour that creates political dependency between China and member states. Eurobonds, which have also been widely discussed as a solution in the euro crisis, could be a useful tool in this.

For EU foreign policy ‘czar’ Catherine Ashton and her team in Brussels and Beijing, fleshing out the elements of a common EU China policy means anticipating events and providing guidance for how individual actions and bilateral visits play to (or undermine) Europe’s strength. For example, the EU needs a code of conduct for dealing with Liu Xiaobo after the Nobel debacle. Such a code of conduct could be minimal. The important point is that it is adhered to. Member states must make strategic choices that do not favour short-term national rewards at the expense of Europe’s strength. The member-states of the EU must move China up the policy agenda and act in unison if they want to reap the benefits of stronger ties to China and avoid being divided and ultimately ruled.

Jonas Parello-Plesner is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked as senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs. He is on the board of editors of the Danish magazine Raeson.

Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.