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It's Tibet, not the economy, stupid!

December 1, 2008

By John Fox
European Voice
November 28, 2008

Depressingly, the EU means less to China as a Union than a single
member state, France. Europe needs to make itself matter to China.

Financial crisis, what financial crisis? If you're the world's
emerging superpower there is no need to humour Europe with a summit
to discuss measure for averting a full-blown depression. Instead you
can use the occasion to grandstand on Tibet and the Dalai Lama,
reminding Europeans how insignificant they and their problems are to
an increasingly powerful China.

China's cancellation of the planned bilateral summit with the EU in
Lyon on 1 December is a brutal, and unprecedented, warning of how
little Europe means to China. We certainly mean less than the US, to
whom this action was also in part meant as a warning shot. And,
depressingly, we mean less to China as a Union than punishing France,
a single member state, for transgressions with the Dalai Lama.

Europe is supposed to have a "comprehensive strategic partnership"
with China. But this move shows that we have nothing of the sort,
certainly in China's eyes. China would never behave this way with the
US, or Russia. Japan regularly gets the melodramatic treatment, but
China would never cancel an East Asia Summit meeting or an ASEAN+3
meeting, because its neighbourhood matters to it.

But in blustering about the Dalai Lama, China is also finding a
useful excuse for not having to tell Europe that its financial
problems don't really matter to China. China never had any intention
of making substantive bilateral or multilateral financial commitments
at this summit. It sees itself as far better placed financially than
Europe and can wait out the crisis until its negotiating position is
maximised. What generosity China is inclined to show, it will
certainly keep as part of an opening bid to the Barack Obama
administration in the US.

So why doesn't Europe matter? It is China's largest trading partner.
A key source of technology and know-how. It is closer to China's view
of building a multilateral world where solutions are reached by
agreement rather than unilateral action (by the US). And it poses no
military threat.

Europe doesn't matter because, of course, we don't function as
Europe. But we also don't matter precisely because we are not a
strategic threat and because there is little Europe can do to China
in return for its outrageous actions. Our market is open (and
anti-dumping actions represent a minuscule amount of China's trade
with Europe). China's industrial policies mean it can strong-arm
European companies into handing over key technologies they wouldn't
do elsewhere. And it is not like we have the best reputation in
recent years for reigning in US unilateralism.

Europe needs to make itself matter to China so that it can have the
sort of strategic relationship both sides need. And it needs to do
this by forging a real common approach to China that is more than the
current default option of unconditional engagement.

John Fox is a senior policy fellow for Asia at the European Council
on Foreign Relations and is co-authoring "A Power Audit of EU-China
Relations", which will be published in January 2009.
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