Since assuming office as the European Union Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson has spent a lot of time thinking about China. These efforts have been part of a wider push to refocus European trade policy to take into account the huge changes that have taken place in the world economy, the rise of China being one of them.
At the heart of this, Mandelson and his officials are trying to develop the terms on which the EU sees its role in the world. Last year, the Directorate General Trade, which he heads, produced a policy document on "Global Europe" with the aim of placing Europe at the center of the globalization process.
Of course, there are more than a few people in Europe who would question the need for the region to even be a part of the globalized economy, let alone putting down roots at the center of it.
While it is true that in China acceptance of the need to engage with the world has in effect become one of the fundamental tenets of government policy, this is far from being the case in Europe. After all, China has arguably been one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalization, and tends to accept it as an opportunity to be exploited.
For many Europeans the perception is entirely the opposite – to the point that the impact of globalization is a threat (often seen to be embodied by China) they want to be protected against. Such calls have come from many different quarters including governments, trade unions and business organizations.
Look out, not in
Mandelson has sought to direct trade policy away from protectionism itself.
On the one hand, his officials emphasize the need to increase Europe's own economic performance, especially by improving regional competitiveness. On the other hand, there is a growing emphasis on opening external markets to European companies. These two are key elements of the "Global Europe" policy.
The latest development in this policy is a new market access strategy that targets, as the name implies, the removal of barriers to European companies in foreign markets. This is not a new policy – the EU has had a market access policy for more than a decade – but it is an attempt to refocus on the needs of today.
Although the strategy by no means specifically targets China, there can be no doubt that it will be on the list of priority countries.
The focus has already been signaled in previous policy documents issued by the Commission which have set out how it will approach China.
It could be argued that this is part of a policy based only on an objective analysis of the case for trade liberalization and the benefits it brings to European companies and economies, as well as those of the targeted countries. But policy is not created just because there is an intellectually compelling case to do so. Political realities often also have a major role to play in policy conception.
Running for cover
One of the realities in Europe is that there is a growing constituency that demands protection for domestic industries. Much of the anger here is directed against Brussels, since the Commission is the ultimate guardian of Europe's economic borders.
The new drive to break down barriers to market access, while it may make good policy from the point of view of economics, is also very shrewd politics, since it shows the Commission to be actively doing something to advance the interests of European companies.
The policy seeks to bring together Commission, the member states and business to unify their efforts at opening markets and proposes a broad range of actions to achieve its goals.
One of the greatest successes of trade liberalization in recent years has been the reduction of tariffs imposed at the border.
Now, the EU will be focusing on so-called behind the border barriers such as customs procedures, improper technical standards, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, failure to protect intellectual property and refusal to open government procurement to foreign suppliers.
In all of these, and other problems the strategy targets, China is to a greater or lesser extent an offender. Over the coming year, Beijing can expect to find itself ever more in the Commission's sights.