Stars and Dragons: The EU and China - European Union Committee Contents


A multi-polar world

28.  We asked our witnesses how China saw the EU and how it fitted into Chinese perceptions of the world. Several outlined China's vision of a multi-polar world in which the EU would be a balancing factor to the US (see Professor Song[20] Q 493, Lillie QQ 2, 4, Grant Q 87). Wang Chong[21] commented that the Chinese had now substituted "harmonious" for "multi-polar" world.

29.  Ambassador Wu[22] believed that Europeans had developed a complex because the centre of gravity had moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, common ground between China and the EU was growing, which was more important than the differences; for example, the Chinese were attracted to European culture. Vice-Minister Zhang[23] thought that the challenges of globalisation were more pressing for the EU than for China. Reform in European markets had been slow and it would take several decades for the EU to adapt to the challenges of globalisation. National governments and political parties recognised that the European social model needed reform. Uncertainty and insecurity about where the EU was headed was increasing and government parties were being punished by the people.

30.  Professor Breslin (Warwick University) thought that Chinese perceptions of the EU as an actor had diminished, particularly with the failure to lift the arms embargo[24], and they now had a more realistic understanding of the EU as one of the sites of governance in Europe but not the only one (Q 210). Charles Grant (Centre for European Reform) also thought that China was disappointed when the EU acceded to US demands that they continue the arms embargo (Q 87). Professor Mitter (Oxford University) thought that the Chinese were annoyed about the West's amnesia about China's role as a wartime ally (Q 148).

The EU as a political partner

31.  Our witnesses said that China recognised that the EU was important but were uncertain about its influence and effectiveness as a political entity. Vice-Minister Liu Jieyi[25] told us that relations between the EU and China were some of the most important in the world. The EU and China agreed on the importance of multilateralism. China had always supported European integration and a larger role for the EU in international affairs (see also Song[26] Q 493, Lillie QQ 2, 4, Lord Mandelson QQ 723-4). China and the EU could cooperate in many of the hot spots of the world to advance development and peace and had much to gain from each other in trade and culture. However, the EU was a complex mechanism with Member States and European institutions and the Chinese public did not take a nuanced view of Europe's complexities. EU decision-making was not consistent, though the Chinese did not find any institutional difficulties dealing with it.

32.  Professor Feng[27] thought that Chinese analysts had over-estimated European integration: the single currency and eastward expansion had led them to believe that a new superpower was emerging. The G20 summit had shown, however, that the EU was influential in projecting soft power. The EU's diplomacy had been successful during the French Presidency, but the EU's capacity for diplomacy fell away when smaller States held the Presidency. He did not think that the Lisbon Treaty would have a major impact on foreign policy; the Member States would not shift significant external decision-making to the European level.

33.  Isabel Hilton (China Dialogue) believed the Chinese recognised the importance of the European economy and technology for their modernisation but thought that Europeans were "not very good at getting their act together on foreign policy … they hope that we will grow up one day". The Chinese saw America as their peer group, rather than Russia or the EU, and took it seriously as a strategic actor because it had weapons, a single government and a single foreign policy. The EU was difficult to deal with because it was so complicated (Q 91). Professor Mitter thought that it was difficult for China to take the EU seriously until it was clear what the EU wanted from China (Q 158).

34.  Professor Song also believed the Chinese would like to work with the EU on international issues, but questioned whether the EU had the capacity. On military matters China dealt with Member States (QQ 500, 501, 517). The strategic partnership with the EU was still being debated in China and not everyone agreed with it. There was no clear definition or common understanding of what the mutual strategic interests were. He thought that the EU-China relationship was a "collaborative partnership" rather than a strategic one. The EU and China should define how to work together, as the notion of a strategic partnership had a negative impact on the expectations of both sides (QQ 487, 490, 492).

The EU or Member States as partners?

35.  Our witnesses commented on the Chinese difficulty in deciding whether to work with the EU or individual Member States. Professor Breslin thought it was not always clear for China where the locus of governance was in dealing with Europe, whether at EU or national level or locally (Q 183). Dr Brown believed that the Chinese did not understand the EU politically, particularly as the enlarged EU grouped together dissimilar countries. They saw that EU Member States fought among themselves to get contracts despite saying they were unified (Q 71).

36.  Professor Song commented that China dealt with Brussels on trade issues and with Member States individually on investment. China invested resources in understanding and influencing the EU, including by working with the European institutions: "the only way to deal with the EU is to deal with both the European level and the Member States" (QQ 493, 496, 517). Stephen Lillie (formerly Head of Far Eastern Group, FCO) agreed that the Chinese increasingly valued interaction with the EU but they also sought to influence it through their relations with individual Member States (QQ 3-4). Professor Feng commented that, before Maastricht, China had focused on the major States. After that it began to focus on Brussels, but attention had now returned to individual States, especially on hard security and strategic issues.

37.  Vice-Minister Zhang[28] told us that Deng Xiaoping had stated 30 years previously that an integrated and powerful EU was in China's interests; it was not China's strategy to play national governments of the EU against each other or against the Union. Xing Hua[29] said that Chinese analysts rejected the idea that China favoured and exploited European division; on the contrary, China supported European integration. Patrick Child (then Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner's Cabinet, Brussels) thought that China was less tempted than some other partners to exploit differences between national positions; they saw benefit in the EU being a strong component in a multi-polar system and valued the relationship. Robert Cooper (Director General, EU Council Secretariat) agreed (Q 411). James Moran (Director-Asia, RELEX) added that the Chinese understood the EU; they would consider playing one Member State off against the other for commercial advantage, but always against the background of the EU as a valuable partner. The relationship was complementary to and not competitive with relationships with Member States (Q 340).

38.  By contrast, Dr Brown thought the Chinese government were very able to pick the Union apart (QQ 58-60). Isabel Hilton also commented that the Chinese found it easy to create disorder as the EU's mechanisms were confused. The EU's leaders were subjected to many pressures—anxieties from businessmen, concerns about the economy—which tended to weaken commitment to public messages to China on issues of concern (Q 95). Professor Godement (Centre Asie, Sciences Po) thought China would always pick the easiest interlocutor to deal with and "the big difference between the 1980s or the 1990s and today is that even the largest European Member State has a considerably weaker bargaining hand in dealing with China than it had 10 or 20 years ago" (Q 580).

Political and economic linkage

39.  Our witnesses told us that there was evidence that the Chinese did not punish Member States commercially when political relations were in trouble. Lord Patten of Barnes said that it was wrong to think that political behaviour had an adverse effect on trade. The Chinese did business on the same basis as everybody else: "they buy what they want at the lowest price that they can get." They constantly gave the impression that "unless you behave yourself on Taiwan, Tibet, China's agenda, you will not be able to do business in China", but this was not the case in practice. He cited a period during which British exports to China doubled despite tensions over Hong Kong (QQ 88, 101, 105, 557, also Hilton Q 101). Professor Godement said that China had criticised Denmark because the Prime Minister received the Dalai Lama, but Denmark had for the past decade pursued a remarkable policy of cooperation with China at many levels concurrently with constant criticism on human rights; the Chinese seemed to have been able to live with it because they knew what to expect (Q 586). A dissenting voice was Robert Cooper who thought that, if one Member State acted on its own, it would find itself frozen out of some markets (Q 421).

40.  Professor Godement pointed out that the French had not benefited commercially from past aid generosity and lenient treatment of the Chinese at the former UN Commission on Human Rights. "There was a belief among French leaders that good relations led to political trade. That has not paid off." The Chinese were able to define their commercial interests deal by deal and wanted to preserve competition among their main suppliers of goods and technologies (QQ 574, 575, 580, 582). Professor Song commented on China's view of Member States: China liked to work with Germany, its chief trade and economic partner, because it always followed the rules. Likewise, the Chinese paid more attention to the UK than to others because, although it criticised China, it would honour commitments once made (Q 497).

41.  Charles Grant said the Chinese attached importance to long-term relationships with individuals. They had come to trust Commissioner Barroso when he was Portuguese Foreign Minister handling the Macao negotiations, and Lord Patten of Barnes when he was the EU External Affairs Commissioner (having disliked him in Hong Kong) (QQ 104, 105).

42.  China has difficulty with the political nature of the EU and its decision-making processes and finds it complex and incomplete as a system of governance. For this reason China often feels more comfortable with the Member States where lines of authority are clearer. This view may change if the EU becomes more effective following the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. The Chinese do not think the Treaty will have a major impact on the EU's foreign policy but, until they see how the EU develops, the Chinese may blow hot and cold over the relationship. Since it is unlikely and undesirable that the EU will develop the strategic or defence capacity of a unitary State, the relationship will remain different from China's relations with other international actors, not least the United States.

43.  It is unrealistic and undesirable that a single EU-China relationship will replace relations between China and individual Member States. The two will rightly continue in parallel. However, the EU and its Member States must be more consistent and not undermine each other. China will always pursue its own domestic and commercial interests single-mindedly. It will target individual countries and pick the easiest interlocutors to deal with to achieve its aims, particularly when it sees that Member States are not united.

44.  The EU has to make hard decisions about which areas of its relations with China are best dealt with through a united EU approach. It is clear that disunity and lack of mutual support over issues such as the Dalai Lama weaken the position of both the EU and the Member States involved. The Lisbon Treaty will not be sufficient to enhance EU solidarity. Whilst respecting the division of competences, the EU and its Member States need to decide the key issues on which, in practice, the EU should stand firm on a united approach and then fully implement this approach.

45.  The Chinese will trade where they need to trade. Evidence given to us showed that good political relations have not necessarily led to commercial success with the Chinese. Conversely, difficult political relations have not necessarily entailed commercial damage.

46.  The EU and its Member States should be forthright and consistent in their opinions and should not compromise on their principles for illusory short-term commercial gain.

The view of the people

47.  Professor Zhou[30] told us that her Institute's surveys on Chinese attitudes to Europe showed that a majority of people thought that Europe was a friend of China. Ambassador Chen[31] echoed this: he claimed that the West was feeding China's insecurity by promoting Sinophobia which led some young Chinese to believe that China must be strong to resist.

48.  At the people-to-people level Professor William Callahan (Manchester University) said the Chinese were generally unhappy with Europeans; this was reflected in Chinese tourist information about Europe (QQ 158, 161). Professor David Shambaugh (Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University) wrote that Chinese understanding of the EU—both at the popular and expert levels—remained "relatively shallow and ill-informed" (p 308).

49.  Professor Mitter thought, however, that there was considerable exposure to the outside world in China from commercial products, television, film and the large numbers of foreigners in China, which tempered more negative views (Q 163). To improve the situation he proposed closer EU engagement with China in higher education. Many young Chinese came to Europe, spent large sums on higher education and were concerned to get value for money. The UK had an advantage because of its language and the quality of higher education, but it was not alone. He questioned whether the EU would advance those links in a European way or whether Member States would act nationally (Q 162). Lord Patten of Barnes also commented on the value of university collaboration with China (Q 566).

50.  The latest OECD figures[32] show that 112,000 Chinese students were studying in the EU in 2007. Professor Shambaugh wrote that the number of Chinese students studying in EU universities (approximately 190,000) was quite impressive (p 308). While there is a discrepancy between these two figures, and the figure below, they nonetheless represent a significant flow of Chinese students to the EU.

51.  Franz Jessen[33] told us in Brussels that cultural and civil society relationships were growing with increasing tourism both ways. Group visits from China were now accepted into Europe with a fast-track visa procedure.[34] Student numbers were increasing with around 20,000 students from Europe studying in China and some 100,000 Chinese students studying in Europe. The EU-China Forum was one of the more formalised EU level dialogues which had taken place twice. A number of activities took place regularly under its umbrella bringing partners from Member States and different parts of China together for discussions. The EU intended to make this a more permanent activity. Think-tanks were developing cooperation, both among Europeans, and between Europeans and Chinese. Regular contacts also took place between Chinese and European Parliaments including the European Parliament (QQ 360-363).

52.  Sukhdev Sharma[35] emphasised the importance of civil society relations as part of the EU-China partnership. The European Economic and Social Council had close relations with the Economic and Social Council of China (CESC). A Round Table with European and Chinese civil society participants was set up in 2007. Four topics had so far been addressed:

  • Sustainable development and climate change
  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
  • Trade and investment
  • Recycling industries

53.  The Round Table meetings had led to practical results. The CSR series had been one of the most fruitful, leading to the endorsement of a broad definition of CSR and the adoption of several further commitments relating to rights and their implementation, the association of all interested parties, reporting and the exchange of best practices (pp 312-3).

54.  Professor Callahan told us that most Chinese students studied science, engineering and business; growing numbers studied humanities and social sciences. A large proportion of influential people in China had studied in the West, in the US, UK and France in particular. Although many who had studied in the West were critical of it, "this is one way to influence China ... The more interchange we have, the better things are and will be". Few people in the EU knew China, spoke a Chinese language or understood Chinese social sciences and humanities; more were needed. The Government had had to pump-prime the British Inter-University China Centre, a research and teaching body, which had been very successful. Think-tanks in Europe tended not to know about China and to take uncritically what their Chinese counterparts said (QQ 164, 165).

55.  Professor Mitter believed that the way to influence China was not by telling it what to do. The way the EU dealt with expertise and education was one method of demonstrating seriousness about China to the Chinese (Q 165). Professor Feng[36] believed the future of EU-China relations should be shaped by media, culture, education and civil society. The EU needed more experts on contemporary China, rather than on history and culture.

56.  We welcome the significant number of Chinese who study in Europe every year. However, we believe that the EU and the Member States should give greater encouragement and support to European students wishing to study in China to redress the imbalance in numbers and to expand the EU's capacity in government, business and the media to understand China as a country and an international actor. The EU and its Member States should also encourage the study of Chinese languages, culture and institutions within the countries of the EU.

What China wants from the EU

57.  The size of the Chinese Mission in Brussels demonstrates its importance for China. Professor Song told us that the Delegation to the EU was large, though smaller than the Chinese Embassy in the US. Only the Posts in Washington and the EU had a special group working with a parliament. China had Deputy Minister-level ambassadors to Germany, France, the UK and the EU. The EU Ambassador had been upgraded in 2002, having previously been combined with the Embassy to Belgium. The current Ambassador had been the Secretary to Premier Wen Jiabao. China put resources into understanding the EU and realised that they had to work with the Commission and the European Parliament. It was more difficult to work with the Council (QQ 496-499).

58.  James Moran (Director-Asia, DG Relex) told us that there were 70-80 Chinese at the Mission in Brussels. They engaged with virtually every part of the institutional network, and had researched the EU thoroughly (Q 341). Professor Godement commented that China was becoming more efficient at many levels of government action, particularly international relations. The talent and training of their diplomatic cadre had improved over the past 20 years, as had their ability to coordinate their government machine (Q 579).

59.  Lord Patten of Barnes summarised the Chinese strategy towards the EU: open markets for their goods; European investment; technology and research collaboration. "They want us to behave ourselves … over Taiwan and Tibet." They attached importance to the relationship and had produced positive documents on China's relationship with the EU, and they sent more senior diplomats to Brussels than some other partners (QQ 551, 552). Lord Mandelson added the arms embargo, anti-dumping duties and market economy status to the list of important issues for the Chinese (Q 728). Vice-Minister Zhang[37] said that China had to respond if European speeches or acts harmed any of their core national interests: national unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity.

60.  Dr Brown told us that the diversity of political and legal systems in Europe was "one key area where there has been actual tangible interest in what Europe has to offer." The Chinese had sent delegations to look at social democratic systems in northern Europe and parliamentary democracy in the UK (QQ 63, 67). Professor Song thought that "for China the most strategically important matter is China's domestic development … economic … social and political …" It was important for China to work with the EU in this area; the European experience was more relevant than America's. He confirmed that the Chinese had for the last 10-15 years looked at European party political models (e.g. social democratic parties). He thought China should also work more closely with the EU on regional policy (QQ 487, 490, 492).

61.  For internal reasons, the Chinese are interested in the EU's social models. Professor Song told us that China faced a challenge on social security. In attempting to build a system, China preferred the European model of "social capitalism", rather than free market capitalism as in the United States (Q 514).

62.  China sees the EU as a source of knowledge and expertise, particularly in the field of technology. Professor Song commented that the EU was China's prime provider of technology (Q 493). Dr Brown told us: "the EU offers what China wants from most modernised industrialised economies; … intellectual property, expertise, management know-how and how to modernise its own economy." It therefore looked to the EU for partners and models (Q 75). China saw the EU as a source of good technology, including clean coal technology. It believed this should be transferred as a gift, rather than as a commercial deal (Q 48). The Chinese government viewed the EU as a partner on the environment and energy; when speaking to the US, the discussion became politicised very early (Q 55).

63.  The Chinese are interested in social, political and regional models which might be useful for their own reform. When they show interest the EU should make efforts to help them with the aim of encouraging steady and peaceful change. In particular, assistance with the introduction of social security provisions may be one way to help the Chinese increase home consumption and re-balance their trade surplus.

20   UN University, Bruges and Renmin University, Beijing. Back

21   Director, China Weekly, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

22   Senior adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

23   Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

24   An EU "arms embargo" was imposed on China following the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square. See Chapter 5. Back

25   International Department of the Communist Party, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

26   Professor Xinning Song, UN University, Bruges and Renmin University, Beijing. Back

27   Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

28   Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

29   Director, Centre for EU Studies, China Institute of International Studies, Round Table, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

30   Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

31   Renmin University, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

32   Education at a Glance 2009,

33   External Relations (RELEX) Directorate General, European Commission, Brussels. Back

34   Council Decision 2004/265/EC of 8 March 2004 concerning the conclusion of the Memorandum of Understanding between the European Community and the National Tourism Administration of the People's Republic of China on visa and related issues concerning tourist groups from the People's Republic of China (ADS) (OJ L 83, 20.3.2004, p.12). This measure stipulates that designated travel agencies in China can act as authorised representatives of visa applicants from the People's Republic of China who are travelling in a group. Such groups may be issued a Schengen visa, limited to a maximum of 30 days and bearing the reference "ADS" (Approved Destination Status). This is a Schengen-building measure and the UK is therefore not bound by or subject to this Council Decision's application. Back

35   Member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and President of the Follow-up Committee of the EU-China Civil Society Round Table. Back

36   Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

37   Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010