China’s rise is a huge challenge to Europe: we must respond with a global China policy

The economic crisis has strengthened Chinese power relative to the rest of the world. Now, if Europe is to make its limited influence count on issues ranging from Iranian proliferation to climate change and the Dalai Lama, it needs to develop a global China policy.

Europe’s foreign
policy towards China is not working. Chinese foreign policy experts saw the
collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 not as a one-off crisis but as a structural
change in the global distribution of power. Since then, China has become more
assertive across a range of foreign policy issues. China has repeatedly snubbed
Europeans in response to their support for the Dalai Lama and Tibet and become
even less apologetic about its own human rights violations. It has deepened
economic ties with North Korea and put minimal pressure on Pyongyang after it
crossed the nuclear threshold and even after it torpedoed a South Korean navy
vessel in May. China has also slowed down progress on international efforts to
impose new sanctions on Iran while benefiting from a burgeoning economic
relationship with Tehran. Finally, at the Copenhagen climate conference- a
wake-up call for many in the West in general and in Europe in particular –
China used tough tactics to achieve its objective of preventing an agreement on
a binding commitment for developing countries (although, in this case, it may
have overplayed its hand).

In short, China
has frustrated hopes for increased global responsibility sharing while pursuing
its own economic and strategic interests through international institutions and
stalling when such institutions challenge its own positions.

China’s strategy
should not be seen as a revisionist challenge to the international system and
its rules. In fact, China often acts as an upholder of existing international
law and sovereignty. At the same time, however, it builds negative coalitions
to restrain any new international norm-building. For this reason, China is becoming
a huge test for EU foreign policy, which has been predicated on the principle
of global norms and values.

Part of the
reason Europe fails to influence China is that many of the key decisions in
China’s foreign policy are now taken by domestic actors who are largely unknown
to foreigners. The Chinese diplomats to whom the West has access tend to
explain, mitigate or deny. Meanwhile, many of the key decisions in China’s
foreign policy are now taken by domestic actors within the Chinese military,
major state-owned companies and the Communist Party who are largely unknown to
foreigners. Understanding these new actors and their interests is a
prerequisite for an effective foreign policy toward China.

Another reason that our foreign policy towards China is not working
is that we still think of our relationship with China in purely bilateral
terms. We need to understand that China now affects every global issue from
trade and the economy to climate change and nuclear proliferation, as well as
every region from Africa to the Middle East. EU member states therefore needs
to reframe their China policy in global terms and take into account China’s
impact across all of the issues in European foreign policy and in relations
with all other countries and regions. Europe needs to co-ordinate its own
policy more effectively, preferably at EU level, and to co-operate with other
countries to increase its limited leverage over China. In short, Europe needs a
global China policy.

This will be a
major challenge for Europe. After all, in the past, EU member states have
struggled to co-ordinate even their own policy toward China, let alone
co-operate with other countries. But although China now feels more powerful
than ever, especially after the global economic crisis, China is in some other
ways more vulnerable. In particular, the strained relations between the US and
China creates opportunities for discreet co-ordination of policy with
Washington. There may also be some scope for greater co-operation with Europe’s
allies in Asia – for example, by extending free-trade partnerships and by
developing strategic relationships with countries such as India, Indonesia,
Japan and South Korea.

The key to a global China policy is to work with other countries to
assemble coalitions to increase Europe’s leverage over China. A good
illustration of how this might work is recent international co-operation to put
pressure on China to disengage from Iran. China’s shift was prompted not so
much by anything the US or Europe did but by the actions of other countries, in
particular Russia’s change of policy on sanctions and the growing involvement
in the negotiations of the Gulf States – especially Saudi Arabia, on which
China is already heavily dependent for energy imports and will be to an even
greater degree in the future. In other words, Europe’s best chance of getting
China to move may often be through others.

You can read Francois’ full report into the need for a global China policy here.

An audio interview with Francois, one of our series of ‘ECFR reports’ podcasts, is available here


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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