The true mettle of the Sino-European relationship lies in China’s bilateral relationships with the UK, Germany and France. If the European Union is to forge its own effective relationship with Beijing, it must move member-states beyond their own separate-track approaches to China.
EU-China relations hit a low point in December 2008 when the Chinese cancelled their participation in a scheduled EU-China summit in Lyon. Member-states, already scrambling to protect their bilateral relationship with China, intensified their efforts after French President Nicolas Sarkozy angered Beijing by officially receiving the Dalai Lama. But even after the EU attempted to develop a united approach at the Prague summit on May 20, the bilateral relationships between China and the three big European powers continue to be the driving forces in the EU-China relationship. For China, these countries have their pecking order: the UK, Germany, and France.
A new special relationship
The Anglo-Chinese relationship has blossomed over the past two years. China has responded well to a comprehensive long-term strategy launched by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government. This strategy was most clearly outlined in the December 2008 Foreign Office Paper "The UK and China: A Framework for Engagement." British Foreign Minister David Miliband expressed London's position of China's centrality in international affairs, saying that China has become the 21st century's "indispensible power."
The British have indicated an "open door" approach to investment from China's flagship sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp (CIC). And in forums such as the G20, China is finding an unlikely ally in the Labour government. Chinese officials were pleased with the degree of consultation in the run-up to April's G20 London summit, where they joined with the British to forge a common front on issues ranging from protectionism to economic-stimulus packages.
While the Chinese preference for the British as a diplomatic partner is becoming increasingly evident, the Sino-German relationship has been marked by ambivalence over the past several years. Gerhard Schröder's "unconditional engagement" with Beijing was replaced in 2005 with Angela Merkel's more sober approach.
Nevertheless, China still sees Germany as its key European trading partner, particularly in manufacturing and technology. Exceeding US$ 100 billion in 2008, Chinese trade and investment with Germany far surpasses that with any other EU country. This relationship has resulted in lucrative investment deals for Germany during China's two purchasing tours of Europe so far this year. As China moves up the manufacturing value chain, however, the two countries are beginning to compete directly for the title of the world's export Weltmeister.
French foreign policy toward China focused on cross-cutting economic development and strategic cooperation during former President Jacques Chirac's second term. This was also China's approach. But under the current president, Nicholas Sarkozy, Franco-Chinese relations hit serious stumbling blocks. Mr. Sarkozy's statements hammering China on human rights to the Olympic torch drama have cast bilateral relations in a new and much dimmer light. Mr. Sarkozy's decision to meet, in his official capacity, with the Dalai Lama encountered fierce Chinese opposition. Beijing subsequently cancelled a series of high-level meetings, among them last December's EU-China summit.
Hints of a turnaround, however, occurred just before the G20 summit, when Mr. Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao unexpectedly met in Paris and released an unusual joint statement reiterating that France fully recognizes "the position that Tibet is an integral part of the Chinese territory." The question now is whether the two countries have re-established their close relationship of two years ago. China has indicated that it may include France in its next purchase tour in Europe, perhaps a first sign that the Franco-Chinese relationship has indeed normalized.
A Europeanized Future?
These bilateral relationships, although individually different, form the basis for China's dealing with Europe. If the European Commission is to forge its own effective relationship with Beijing, it must move member-states beyond their own separate-track approaches to China.