Ten years on: Rebooting the EU-China strategic partnership

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Chinese and Europeans should increase their social, educational and business contacts in order to deepen relations beyond their thriving trade links, academics, think tank representatives and policymakers told a roundtable discussion on EU-China relations organised by Friends of Europe in cooperation with the Chinese Mission to the EU on 25 November.

Meeting a few days after EU leaders attended a summit with Chinese Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing - and ahead of the Europe-China Forum organised by Friends of Europe and the Chinese Mission to the EU on November 26 - roundtable participants discussed all aspects of EU-China relations, including elements of the 2020 Strategic Agenda adopted by the EU-China summit in Beijing.

The roundtable sought to map out a new and fresh agenda for EU-China relations over the next ten years. In addition to an enhanced strategic vision, round table participants said that Europeans and Chinese could benefit from an increase in contact at differing levels – in schools, local government and projects to improve quality of life. “There is a trust gap in EU-China relations,” said one European participant . “But I am sceptical about attempts to build trust top down. I prefer bottom up.”

Since the EU and China formed their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership 10 years ago, trade has boomed, reaching EUR 434 billion in 2012. The EU is now China's biggest export market and China is the EU's second biggest after the U.S.

But, said one Chinese round table participant, the relationship is still beset by fears and misunderstandings. Europeans think that China is focussed on a new kind of great power relationship with the U.S., leaving the EU marginalised, he said. They are also worried about trade disputes, such as the recent high-profile case over solar panel exports, and are wary of Chinese efforts to forge relations with individual member states – or groups of them. Moreover, Europeans think China sees the EU mainly as a trading power and that it does not appreciate Europe's role in world security.

The Chinese don't like to be labelled by Europeans as an increasingly assertive power, and note that European companies have been slow to commit themselves to China. In addition, China has not been able to play an active role in international agenda setting – and it, too, feels marginalised.

“The question is, how can we reduce apprehensions towards each other?” said the Chinese participant. “We need to be honest about the problems.”

The backdrop to evolving EU-China relations is a shift in the way that international business is conducted. The EU and Chinese economies used to be clearly complementary: China could compete on low-cost labour and Europe had a big lead in technology. That is no longer the case, said one European participant. “The skills and knowledge gap is closing fast, which means less complementarity and more competition, leading to more trade disputes.” Moreover, trade has become increasingly complex, with much of it taking place within individual large companies. “China has enjoyed a trade surplus with the EU for many years,” said a Chinese participant. “How does this come? About 60 or 70 percent is from EU companies, who export.”

Broadening contacts beyond the most senior level could be an effective way to exchange useful information. “Rotterdam port looks after itself, not the government of the Netherlands,” said a European participant. “So it would be good for the mayor of Shanghai to talk directly to the mayor of Rotterdam.”

Participants came up with a number of other concrete measures for cooperation, including food safety, urbanisation, city management, social security and environmental protection. “China and Europe are leading in many aspects of green energy development,” said one European participant . “China has more wind capacity than anywhere else, and it's making solar power more affordable. There's a certain inevitability about energy and climate change reshaping the relationship between China and the EU.”

Exchanges between schools and universities in different parts of China and Europe would also contribute to the relationship. These should, if possible, target students with specific interests, said one Chinese participant. “After 10 or 15 years the students will grow up,” he said. “I think we need concrete measures to implement a big idea or plan.”

For China, engagement with Europe could help drive the reforms announced at the meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee. “China used to be on the margin of the world stage. Now it's moving little by little to the centre, but China is still a latecomer, especially with international rules, laws and practices,” said a Chinese participant. “The danger of being kicked out of the international community forced China to reform.”


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