This piece was first published by the Financial Times on 19 May.
On Wednesday, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, will travel to Prague for a summit with his European Union counterparts that has perhaps the lowest expectations of any on record. The summit should have taken place last December but was delayed after China withdrew in protest at French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to meet the Dalai Lama. No matter whom you talk to in Europe or in China, the best anyone can say about the reinstated summit is that it will happen – hopefully.
But who does such an empty diplomatic process serve? It is Europe that traditionally wants such summits and dialogues and often has to beg China to get them, expending what little leverage it has on the process rather than on substance. China knows a rite when it sees one and has become adept at exploiting the EU’s passion for summitry, agreeing to discussions but turning them into pointless talking shops.
The same is about to happen again but with more at stake for Europe this time around. The diplomatic contempt China showed Europe in cancelling the December summit did not prevent Mr Sarkozy from meeting the Dalai Lama. But it did provide China with the opportunity to turn what would otherwise have been a difficult meeting in advance of the London summit of the Group of 20 leading nations into an opportunity to make the EU grateful simply that China is willing to turn up.
The EU should not stand for this. Only a couple of months ago the mood in Paris, Prague, Brussels and many European capitals was not one of gratitude for Chinese participation but of surprise and anger that China had wrecked the relationship. They were right to be angry. Europe’s engagement-at-all-costs approach over the last two decades has given China access to all the economic and other benefits of co-operation with Europe while getting little in return. China continues to throw many more obstacles in the way of European companies wanting to enter the Chinese market than any Chinese company faces in the EU – one reason why the EU’s trade deficit with China has swollen, to a staggering €169bn ($228bn, £150bn) last year. Efforts to get Beijing to live up to its responsibility as a key stakeholder in the global economy have been largely unsuccessful. China’s limited offer at the G20 to subscribe an eventual $40bn to the International Monetary Fund (when Europe and Japan each contributed over $100bn) is little more than a “tax” to avoid being seen as a global deal-breaker.
The EU needs urgently to recognise that China is no longer the developing nation that Europe continues to treat it as. It is a global power whose decisions are central to virtually all the EU’s pressing concerns. It needs a new interest-based approach to China that focuses on a few priority areas, such as the economic crisis, market access and climate change, and uses incentives and threats to strike tougher bargains. The full support of all member states, especially the UK, France and Germany – who continue to jockey for position as China’s partner of choice in Europe – is also required.
The EU should aim to exchange awarding China Market Economy Status (which would allay China’s fear of European protectionism) for the removal by China of its own barriers to trade and investment. It should stop linking the EU arms embargo on China to unrealistic demands for democratic progress and trade it instead for Chinese support for stronger sanctions on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
As the fiasco over Mr Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama showed, EU leaders also need to support each other, rather than exploit each other’s misfortune when attacked by China, and quickly adopt robust common positions on these sensitive issues. Finally, the EU needs to reverse its dependence on process and make summits with China meaningful; at the most basic, by linking their success to positive results on difficult issues such as economic relations, global governance, common concerns in Africa or progress on human rights. But without a serious prospect of progress on some of our concerns, Europe should be willing itself to forgo summits.
The challenge now for the EU is to avoid getting blinded by enthusiasm for putting the diplomatic process back on track and for member states and the Commission to tackle the real problem of what their China strategy should be. Europe needs to talk to China but an empty EU-China summit would be a step backwards, not forwards.
John Fox and François Godement are senior policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.