It’s Tibet, not the economy, stupid

China?s cancellation of the planned bilateral summit with the EU is a brutal and unprecedented warning of how little Europe means to China.

This article was published in the European Voice on 28 November 2008.

Financial crisis, what financial crisis? If you’re the world’s emerging superpower there is no need to humour Europe with a summit to discuss measure for averting a full-blown depression. Instead you can use the occasion to grandstand on Tibet and the Dalai Lama, reminding Europeans how insignificant they and their problems are to an increasingly powerful China.

China’s cancellation of the planned bilateral summit with the EU in Lyon on 1 December is a brutal, and unprecedented, warning of how little Europe means to China. We certainly mean less than the US, to whom this action was also in part meant as a warning shot. And we depressingly mean less to China as a Union than punishing France, a single member state, for transgressions with the Dalai Lama.

Europe is supposed to have a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China. But this move shows that we have nothing of the sort, certainly in China’s eyes. China would never behave this way with the US, or Russia. Japan regularly gets the melodramatic treatment, but China would never cancel an East Asia Summit meeting or an ASEAN+3 meeting, because its neighbourhood matters to it.

But in blustering about the Dalai Lama, China is also finding a useful excuse for not having to tell Europe that its financial problems don’t really matter to China. China never had any intention to make substantive bilateral or multilateral financial commitments at this summit. It sees itself as far better placed financially than Europe and can wait out the crisis until its negotiating position is maximised. What generosity China is inclined to show, it will certainly keep as part of an opening bid to the Obama administration.

So why doesn’t Europe matter? It is China’s largest trading partner. A key source of technology and know-how. It is closer to China’s view of building a multilateral world where solutions are reached by agreement rather than unilateral action (by the US). And it poses no military threat.

Europe doesn’t matter because of course we don’t function as Europe. But we also don’t matter precisely because we are not a strategic threat and because there is little Europe can do to China in return for its outrageous actions. Our market is open (and anti-dumping actions represent a minuscule amount of China’s trade with Europe). China’s industrial policies mean it can strong-arm European companies into handing over key technologies they wouldn’t do elsewhere. And it is not like we have the best reputation in recent years for reigning in US unilateralism.

Europe needs to make itself matter to China so that it can have the sort of strategic relationship both sides need. And it needs to do this by forging a real common approach to China which is more than the current default option of unconditional engagement.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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