The Elusive Strategic EU-China Partnership

Written by | Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Richard Maher (Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs)

For the last couple of decades, the emerging strategic partnership between China and the European Union has often been a major topic of discussion. Former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana considers China as a natural partner of the Union. Also other European leaders promote common interests in areas such as regional security, non-proliferation or the fight against global poverty. One of the motivations behind the Union’s interest in a closer cooperation with this country is the belief that a closer involvement could lead to political and social changes in China, which could in turn steer it towards a greater democratization.

Despite the above-mentioned common points within the Sino-EU relationship, there are many incongruities. Divergent points of view between both actors concerning the global order or their geopolitical interests are both evident. The question of fundamental political values is controversial as well because China does not approve of a democratic system, independent and free media or human rights, which all belong to the main pillars of the Union’s values. China thus remains one of the biggest dilemmas of the EU foreign policy. On one hand, it is an interesting economic opportunity, yet on the other hand, China has an authoritarian regime that suppresses human rights.

The period of the closest China-EU partnership was between 2003 and 2009, during the presidency of G. W. Bush. At this time, China’s and EU’s views converged thanks to their shared attitudes toward Bush’s foreign policy. In particular, the representatives of China and the EU were concerned about the way the United States was using its power and influence around the world. After Obama assumed the presidency, the dynamics of the US foreign policy changed dramatically. Obama’s conception of the US foreign policy is no longer a common source of concern for the EU and China and thus the issue ceases to be a common theme.

In recent years, the Sino-EU relations have been defined both by discontent arising from different approaches to issues such as the preferred political system or the existence and respect for human rights as well as the flourishing cooperation, for example in the economic sector. The question remains whether the negative aspects of the partnership will prevail or if the positive ones will win. How this question is answered by the Union and China will be crucial because this will be shaping their partnership over the next few years.

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