The EU-China relationship received a boost in late April with the visit of EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and nine commissioners to Beijing. This was one of the most important exchanges between the EU and China in many years.
From an economic-relationship point of view, the most important outcome of the visit was the launch of the EU-China high-level economic and trade dialogue mechanism. However, the fact that Barroso visited Beijing with so many of his colleagues emphasizes the breadth and importance Brussels attaches to the relationship.
The new dialogue mechanism is intended to help resolve at least some of the many frictions in the economic relationship between China and the EU. Despite the apparent seriousness of purpose, there is no guarantee of success.
There already exist many official dialogues between the EU and China that cover economic and other issues. The general view is that while they may help the cause of mutual understanding, they produce little in the way of practical results for resolving the many problems that the EU believes must be tackled.
From the European point of view, it is hoped that the dialogue mechanism will change this by anchoring discussions at the highest level. At the first meeting held during Barroso’s visit, broad issues such as trade and investment cooperation, and balanced economic development were discussed, as well as specific subjects such as energy, high-tech goods trade, intellectual property protection and trade facilitation.
Nonetheless, economics is not the only area of friction in the EU-China relationship at the moment. For the first time in many years, China has become politically controversial in Europe as the Chinese government has been subjected to widespread public censure due to its handling of events in Tibet in March.
The wave of criticism of China, multiplied by the protests that accompanied the progress of the Olympic torch in Paris and London, was the strongest seen for many years. Criticisms of China dominated public discourse in most of Europe.
The EU, while expressing its concerns over Tibet, has sought a more balanced approach, as evidenced in the Barroso-led visit in April.
Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, has offered one of the few coherent defenses by a senior political figure of why it is in Europe’s interest to continue to engage with China. In a speech in London prior to the Commission’s visit to Beijing, he argued that those seeking confrontation with China would not serve Europe’s interests, nor would they help to effect change there. Europe, he argued, has no choice but to work with China.
There is little chance of a quick resolution to the economic issues that the dialogue mechanism is designed to address.
Barring a miracle, the EU’s bilateral trade deficit with China – the symbol of what many in Europe see as the grossly unbalanced distribution of the benefits of the relationship – will continue to grow this year. None of the other substantive issues like market access or intellectual property protection are likely to be resolved any time soon either.
In Europe, China will remain a public issue at least until the Olympic Games. Campaigning groups and the media will ensure this. Once the Olympics are over, public attention may move on and campaigners may be forced to redistribute their efforts in favor of other causes.
But the issues will not go away.
The events in Tibet have revealed a deep well of anti-China feeling in Europe and anti-European feeling in China. These will feed public perceptions of the relationship for some time. It may be that calls for boycotts on either side amount to little, but they are evidence of mutual suspicion, if not hostility.
In the past the EU approach to China has been largely non-controversial in Europe, with efforts based on cooperation, not confrontation. It may be very difficult to return to that condition, and this could leave European business facing its first real political challenge on China in recent times.
The dialogue mechanism may deal with the economics, but both sides will also need to work on other aspects of the relationship if it is to remain cooperative, and carry public opinion with it.