EU China Strategic Partnership

With Europe in the midst of an economic crisis and the United States announcing a pivot to Asia, relations between China and Europe are at a critical point. China views its relations with the European Union (EU) as a very important constituent of its foreign policy. Europeans see China as a force to balance the United States, as does China. Thus, there should be potential for mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and China, if it were not for several critical disagreements. The cancellation of the EU-China summits in 2008 and 2011, human rights issues, repeated trade disputes, the arms embargo, and China’s market economy status are some of the issues that have strained relations in the past and continue to have an impact. Moreover, China and the EU face important domestic challenges. Following the sovereign debt crisis, the EU has come out more vulnerable than ever before, with the crisis having spilled over to the political sphere. China on the other hand, is struggling with a major restructuring of its society as a whole, and a slowdown of its economic development after decades of exponential growth rates.
The EU has had formal relations with China since 1975.  In the first two decades of bilateral relations, two important agreements were produced. The year 1978 witnessed the first bilateral trade agreement; seven years later, in 1985, a new agreement was concluded on trade and economic cooperation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these relations have tended to focus on economic affairs in general, and trade issues in particular. The EU-China Strategic Partnership, which is based on the 1985 EU-China trade and cooperation agreement, has grown to include foreign affairs, security matters and international challenges such as climate change and global economy governance. The Strategic Partnership had three main objectives: the forming of a multipolar world based on multilateral institutions and closer political dialogue between China and the EU, cooperation in high-tech and strategic industrial sectors and closer economic ties. The stronger economic relations are supported by the EU-China Investment Agreement in which the main topics investment protection and market access. The idea of creating a free trade area came up as a long term perspective. China and the EU see cultural, educational and youth exchanges as a special field of the cooperation, and decided to take steps towards mobility and migration issues as well.
The EU and China share common interests in many areas: building a multilateral framework to maintain international security and stability, dealing with climate change, facilitating a mutually beneficial trade partnership—the realization of these objectives needs cooperation from both sides. Both the EU and China agree that they need each other. China and the EU have tried to cooperate where possible, and to minimize conflict: in the words of Henry Kissinger, they have developed a relationship of “co-evolution”.
China and Europe are still very high on each others’ foreign policy agenda, and they have considerably institutionalized their cooperation. Crucial in this respect is the comprehensive EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, launched at the end of 2013. The Agenda has four pillars: a) Peace and Security; b) Economic Prosperity; c) Sustainable Development; and d) People-to-People Exchanges.
A significant event in the evolving EU China relations was the visit of Chinese President, Xi  Jinping to the institutions of the European Union. Both sides pronounced their engagement towards deepening their partnership which is based on the principles of equality, respect and trust. Both sides expressed their responsibility to remain the key economic drivers for global economic growth. They agreed on the importance of an open global economy and creating the conditions for growing trade and investment opportunities.
However, there are some limitations to the EU China Strategic Partnership. EU-China relations encapsulate some of the key challenges facing the EU in its economic diplomacy, and in a concentrated form.  Alongside the Brussels institutions and national governments, there is an expanding range of networks and specialized relationships that effectively constitute a form of “private governance” in EU-China relations. These three sets of relations—Brussels-Beijing, Member States-Beijing and private networks— are interrelated, but they are not always complementary and they can provide evidence of the fragmentation of the institutional framework for EU economic diplomacy.
Moreover, it is also obvious that EU and China are diametrically opposite with regard to their political systems, their levels of economic development, or their cultural traditions, norms and values. Well aware of these differences, the Europeans attempt to transform China into a liberal democracy, based on the rule of law and market economy. This is evident from the fact that from the first EU China policy paper in 1995, the EU has kept coherence in its major objectives that the engagement with China was to help the latter facilitate a process of—-      transition towards a more open system based on respect for human rights and democracy, the rule of law and a market economy.
Another factor that has posed the challenge to EU China strategic partnership is the varied response of the two parties to the ongoing Ukraine Crisis. While the EU has been pro-active in condemning Russian actions, China has cautiously placed itself on the sidelines avoiding direct involvement. China’s recent approach shows how Beijing is now more willing to dilute longstanding foreign policy principles to align with Moscow. Throughout the months of unrest in Ukraine, Chinese media commentary has generally echoed Russia’s line that Western machinations were contributing to the instability in Kiev, which finally led to the change of regime that triggered Russia’s military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula China also considers Russia to be a necessary bulwark against the U.S. and European Union influence around the world, often standing with Moscow on matters at the United Nations.
At present, from the perspective of Chinese foreign policy there are two dark areas in Sino European relations- the EU’s non granting of market economy status and the non-lifting of arms embargo.
In retrospect, one can say that though the  differences examined above constitute a serious obstacle to the realization of a genuine strategic partnership, the growing importance of trade and investment relations between China and the EU will cushion the impact of these differences, thus allowing each side more leverage over the other in dealing with complex bilateral and international issues.

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