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Europe needs to stop its pandering to China

May 20, 2009

By John Fox and François Godement
The Financial Times (UK)
May 18, 2009

On Wednesday, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier,
will travel to Prague for a summit with his
European Union counterparts that has perhaps the
lowest expectations of any on record. The summit
should have taken place last December but was
delayed after China withdrew in protest at French
president Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to meet the
Dalai Lama. No matter whom you talk to in Europe
or in China, the best anyone can say about the
reinstated summit is that it will happen ­ hopefully.

But who does such an empty diplomatic process
serve? It is Europe that traditionally wants such
summits and dialogues and often has to beg China
to get them, expending what little leverage it
has on the process rather than on substance.
China knows a rite when it sees one and has
become adept at exploiting the EU’s passion for
summitry, agreeing to discussions but turning
them into pointless talking shops.

The same is about to happen again but with more
at stake for Europe this time around. The
diplomatic contempt China showed Europe in
cancelling the December summit did not prevent Mr
Sarkozy from meeting the Dalai Lama. But it did
provide China with the opportunity to turn what
would otherwise have been a difficult meeting in
advance of the London summit of the Group of 20
leading nations into an opportunity to make the
EU grateful simply that China is willing to turn up.

The EU should not stand for this. Only a couple
of months ago the mood in Paris, Prague, Brussels
and many European capitals was not one of
gratitude for Chinese participation but of
surprise and anger that China had wrecked the
relationship. They were right to be angry.
Europe’s engagement-at-all-costs approach over
the last two decades has given China access to
all the economic and other benefits of
co-operation with Europe while getting little in
return. China continues to throw many more
obstacles in the way of European companies
wanting to enter the Chinese market than any
Chinese company faces in the EU ­ one reason why
the EU’s trade deficit with China has swollen, to
a staggering €169bn ($228bn, £150bn) last year.
Efforts to get Beijing to live up to its
responsibility as a key stakeholder in the global
economy have been largely unsuccessful. China’s
limited offer at the G20 to subscribe an eventual
$40bn to the International Monetary Fund (when
Europe and Japan each contributed over $100bn) is
little more than a “tax” to avoid being seen as a global deal-breaker.

The EU needs urgently to recognise that China is
no longer the developing nation that Europe
continues to treat it as. It is a global power
whose decisions are central to virtually all the
EU’s pressing concerns. It needs a new
interest-based approach to China that focuses on
a few priority areas, such as the economic
crisis, market access and climate change, and
uses incentives and threats to strike tougher
bargains. The full support of all member states,
especially the UK, France and Germany ­ who
continue to jockey for position as China’s
partner of choice in Europe ­ is also required.

The EU should aim to exchange awarding China
Market Economy Status (which would allay China’s
fear of European protectionism) for the removal
by China of its own barriers to trade and
investment. It should stop linking the EU arms
embargo on China to unrealistic demands for
democratic progress and trade it instead for
Chinese support for stronger sanctions on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

As the fiasco over Mr Sarkozy’s meeting with the
Dalai Lama showed, EU leaders also need to
support each other, rather than exploit each
other’s misfortune when attacked by China, and
quickly adopt robust common positions on these
sensitive issues. Finally, the EU needs to
reverse its dependence on process and make
summits with China meaningful; at the most basic,
by linking their success to positive results on
difficult issues such as economic relations,
global governance, common concerns in Africa or
progress on human rights. But without a serious
prospect of progress on some of our concerns,
Europe should be willing itself to forgo summits.

The challenge now for the EU is to avoid getting
blinded by enthusiasm for putting the diplomatic
process back on track and for member states and
the Commission to tackle the real problem of what
their China strategy should be. Europe needs to
talk to China but an empty EU-China summit would
be a step backwards, not forwards.

* John Fox and François Godement are senior
policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations
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