Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Nov 18, 2005
China knows its limits in Europe
By Duncan Freeman

BRUSSELS - The recent state visits by President Hu Jintao to the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain are the latest steps in a continuing effort by the Chinese government and its European counterparts to strengthen their ties, but they also demonstrate some of the contradictions China faces in dealing with Europe and its constituent member states.

Both the European Union and China have described their relationship as strategic, although sometimes this seems no more than a hyperbolic way of saying each considers the other

important. It is perhaps true that the relationship is more strategic for China than the EU. The promotion of multipolarity is one of the key foreign policy aims of the Chinese government, and the EU is a crucial element in the policy.

In a multipolar world, a strong EU would be one of the poles that could counterbalance the influence of the US. For this reason careful cultivation of relations with the EU has been an ongoing process. In many areas, the EU and China have in fact established strong ties that go beyond the basic interest in trade and investment.

Despite progress, relations with Europe have faced difficulties over the past year, most notably over the EU embargo on arms sales to China and also over textile trade. Prior to Hu's departure, the stage appeared to be set for a difficult series of meetings, as Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, speaking to journalists in Beijing, put the case for lifting of the arms embargo forcefully: "China's position is very clear. What we are not in favor of and are opposed to is in fact that this ban involves and reflects political discrimination. This political discrimination is not conducive to cooperation, it is totally useless and should be abandoned. If we really look at mutual benefit this is what we should do."

Li's remarks, which were widely reported in the Western media, seemed to indicate that Hu would be coming to Europe to make demands for resolution of outstanding issues between the EU and China. Yet the comments were almost entirely ignored in official Chinese reporting of the meeting with the media, which focused on the positive aspects of China's relations with each of the countries Hu was about to visit.

The message appeared to be that China would put its view if asked, but was eager to ensure that the visits were not marred by public disputes. In fact, at each stage of his stop, in public at least, Hu seemed intent to stress that his visit was entirely benign, as was China's own development. China, he insisted in speeches, would adhere to a path of peaceful development, and its emergence represented no threat.

Since the visits were to the individual countries, and not at the EU level, Hu's hosts had a perfectly good excuse to say they were not an appropriate forum to discuss EU-China relations. Still, it was impossible to completely ignore broader questions. In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair limited himself in public to saying that the EU attached importance to its relations with China, and would make further efforts to address issues of concern to China.

As is well known, the UK government is one of those most reluctant to move rapidly toward lifting the arms embargo, although on trade issues, notably textiles, its stance has been considerably less protectionist than some of its European partners. The current Spanish government, much less close to the US than its predecessor, may be considered open to adopting a more positive attitude to China on issues such as the embargo. When Hu was in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said broadly that Spain would continue to actively press the EU to solve issues of concern to China at an early date.

It was only in Berlin that the arms embargo really became an issue, and this was entirely the result of domestic politics, rather than the interventions of Hu. The visit of the Chinese president coincided with the transition from the Social Democrat Party (SPD) government of Gerhard Schroeder to the new "grand alliance" coalition government combining the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD, which will be headed by the CDU's Angela Merkel. Schroeder remained chancellor during Hu's visit, and appeared determined to assert his authority until the very last minute over policy on China, which he has spent great effort in cultivating. Schroeder insisted publicly that Europe should end the embargo, and that France and Germany should work toward a "sensible solution".

Merkel is widely regarded as being far more Atlantacist in outlook than Schroeder. In almost complete contradiction of Schroeder's position, the CDU foreign affairs spokesman stated that lifting the embargo was not on the agenda of the new government, and that an improvement in the human-rights situation and a relaxation of the Taiwan issue were preconditions for its removal.

Within the confines of focusing on bilateral matters in each host nation, exchanges focused on discussion of areas of mutual interest. In talks with Blair, trade, global security and the environment were discussed, and the meeting between Merkel and Hu reportedly focused on energy and the environment

There was the usual mixture of business and cultural diplomacy that accompanies such ceremonial visits. In London, Hu attended the opening of a major Chinese art exhibition and in Berlin he attended the laying of the foundation stone for a Chinese cultural center.

While Hu was in the UK, business contracts worth US$1.3 billion were signed for the sale of Rolls-Royce engines to Air China and the manufacture of wing parts for Airbus by China Aviation Industry Corporation 1, and an agreement was also concluded allowing Lloyd's of London access to China's insurance market. On the German leg of his tour a contract was signed for the sale of 60 high-speed trains to China by Siemens.

Superficially of greater significance was the "strategic partnership" agreement with Spain. In fact, this is little more than an agreement to intensify exchanges in areas such as terrorism, non-proliferation and UN reform and to expand economic ties and exchanges in culture, tourism and education, and is similar to an existing partnership with the UK, agreed to in 2004.

The one potentially controversial area was human rights. Public opinion in Europe makes it impossible to avoid the subject, and it was duly raised by Hu's hosts. When Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, visited London on a state visit six years ago there was considerable controversy, mainly because British police took heavy-handed action to stop any protests being visible to Jiang when proceeding with the Queen to Buckingham Palace.

The action, reportedly at the request of the Chinese government, only ensured that media headlines focused on human rights. This time protests were not interfered with, although they was studiously ignored by Hu, and the media were almost totally preoccupied by domestic politics, Blair having just lost a crucial vote in parliament on anti-terrorism legislation. On his other stops, human rights also did not figure strongly.

One of the difficulties for China in its relations with Europe, as it has found over the past year, is that common EU policies in many areas considered important in Beijing are often the end result of divergent views of governments within Europe.

This can lead to unpredictable outcomes. There is no guarantee that a European government friendly to China on one issue will be so on others. To ensure that EU-China relations continue to develop, China still needs to cultivate relations with member states. Relations with individual European countries are also important in their own right, since this is where much real business is carried out.

This is more complex, however, than playing the Europeans off against each other. Although European governments will certainly seek to advance their own interests with China, there are limits to how far such competition will go in determining EU policy, which has to be agreed on collectively.

Hu left Madrid to travel to South Korea for an important Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this week, where he will be occupied with relations with the rest of Asia. He will also play host to President George W Bush later this month.

China's increasingly active foreign policy is multifaceted and the EU will remain a preoccupation. Efforts to cultivate ties with individual member states will continue. In December, Premier Wen Jiabao will make a trip to Europe, visiting France, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Even if none of the big issues were resolved, Hu would probably have been satisfied with his European tour. China will continue to make headway in strengthening its relations with Europe and its member states, but it may not be able to achieve all that it would like.

While Europe in general remains multilateral in outlook, it is not necessarily multipolar. Although some Europeans may believe that relations with China could be a substitute for those with the US, there are in fact a growing number of voices which call for closer coordination of EU policy on China with the US.

The traditional alliance across the Atlantic remains strong, even if it has been sorely tested in recent years. Given its divisions and policy preferences, Europe, by its nature and also by inclination, is unlikely to become a pole in the world as China may hope.

Duncan Freeman is a writer and consultant based in Brussels. He can be contacted at duncanfreeman@skynet.be

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

Democracy with Chinese characteristics (Nov 9, '05)

Bush, Hu to meet at crucial crossroad (Oct 29, '05)

The making of a China-EU world (Jul 20, '05)

EU early warning for Chinese textile tsunami (Apr 8, '05)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110