EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson's visit to China in early November was a first chance to see his new approach to EU-China economic ties in action.
Of course, it is far too soon to see if the new policy, detailed in a European Commission paper in October, will prove a success. Nevertheless, during his trip, Mandelson made a clear attempt to advance some of the issues, such as IPR protection and the opening of Chinese markets, which the new policy attempts to deal with.
Much of this is not new. The EU has been raising problems like market access and counterfeiting for many years. However, it has become clear that Europe is willing to push Beijing on these issues more forcefully than before.
It would be wrong to read the revised EU approach to China as simply an aggressive move to secure action on an agenda of European grievances.
The new China policy is a key part of EU strategy embodied in a couple of documents issued by the Commission. The first, titled "Competition and Partnership", set out the framework for Brussels' policy on the EU trade and investment relationship with China.
It accompanies another document, "EU-China: Closer Partners, Growing Responsibilities", which covers the broader relationship between the EU and China.
Although a strategic partnership between the EU and China has been in place for the last three years, until now it has often been difficult to discern any clear direction to Brussels' approach to Beijing. Even if the overall relationship is generally regarded as positive, there are undoubtedly problem areas – and these are becoming increasingly difficult to live with.
A panoramic view
China, the Commission has realized, is too important to be treated as a series of separate problems and, furthermore, many of the assumptions on which past policy has been made are redundant.
China no longer simply presents a direct challenge to the EU in terms of trade and investment, nor are the problems they face bilateral. Brussels now accepts that Beijing's impact is global and, therefore, the EU and China must develop relations on a wider base, accepting responsibility for issues from climate change and the environment through to international development and energy security.
According to the Commission, these global implications of ties with China must be factored into the full range of EU policies. Despite the wider impact of China on many areas of policy, nowhere is this more necessary than in trade and investment.
The tension between partnership and competition is clearly visible almost every day in the EU's economic dealings with China. While the Commission is careful to point out the considerable benefits that have accrued to the EU as a result of these dealings, it stresses that, to date, Brussels believes China has been the greatest beneficiary in the relationship.
It calls for a rebalancing so that both sides are seen to benefit equally.
For this to happen, China needs to take action on a number of issues, including tariffs and non-tariff barriers, government procurement, intellectual property protection and investment restrictions.
The EU will press China for change, but the Commission insists that it will continue a policy of dialogue and constructive engagement. An important element of this will be continuing efforts to ensure China is fully integrated into the structures of the international economy.
This doesn't go so far as to endorse the use of sanctions to beat Beijing into shape, but it does stress the need for substantial movement from China if it is to conform to global standards.
Time to step up
That said, while the policy embodies a message targeted at China, it doesn't fail to draw attention to European deficiencies. And for Europeans the message is almost as demanding: they must adapt to the challenge of the economic rise of China, and to globalization in general.
As Mandelson has often emphasized in the past, this means that European companies cannot expect to hide behind the shelter of protectionism.
But, as the Commission points out, constructing a policy that deals with the challenges of China amounts to more than just issuing a circular that says 'no protectionism, please'.
Such a policy has less to do with bilateral relations with China than the fundamental economic challenges facing the EU as a whole, which were the subject of a policy paper published earlier in October on European competitiveness and the global economy.
The Commission has attempted to construct a nuanced approach to China that balances competing policy aims.
Its success will depend on two unknowns: the response of China to the policies targeted towards it; and, equally important, the response of the EU to the twin challenges of China and its own internal need for reform.
Of these two, a positive European response may be the most difficult to achieve. Persuading European nations to factor China into their policies is part of the wider issue of raising European competitiveness. This is something that many governments still fail to grasp.
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