Op-Ed Contributors

EU-China ties face new questions

By Tom Rafferty (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-16 08:19
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Editor's note: The author thinks that post-Lisbon Europe will adopt a more coherent policy toward China, which is a challenge for China in handling EU-China relations.

One of the chief recommendations of the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in December 2009, was that it would enhance the global standing of the European Union (EU). The creation of two high-level posts - President of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy - would help Europe represent itself more clearly to the rest of the world.

The powers of the High Representative, in particular, would ensure EU foreign policy was better streamlined and coordinated. For many in Brussels, the passing of the Lisbon Treaty marked the moment when the EU finally possessed the institutional tools that would help it realize its potential as a global strategic actor.

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Has Lisbon changed European politics? A cursory survey would suggest not. There was first the unsightly image of national governments engaged in intense jockeying over the top positions. Those eventually appointed as president and high representative - Herman Van Rompuy, then Belgian prime minister, and British peer Catherine Ashton - faced immediate criticism for their apparent lack of gravitas. More recently the protracted nature of negotiations over a financial aid package for debt-laden Greece has not projected an image of European unity to the world.

Followers of European politics, accustomed to the bureaucratic infighting of Brussels, suggest the Lisbon Treaty is not going to be implemented overnight and caution against assuming nothing has changed. Indeed details on one of the more significant innovations of the treaty were unveiled by Ashton last week, when she announced proposals for the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the powerful new diplomatic corps that will support her work as EU foreign policy chief.

According to the plan, all European Commission staff working on foreign affairs, together with select diplomats from member states, will be grouped together to form a dedicated foreign service team of about 8,000 members spread across a string of delegations around the world. Rather than suffer from the vacillations of the rotating presidency system, the EU's considerable resources, including the largest aid and development budget in the world, will now be marshaled around a "single political strategy". Ashton claimed her proposal for the EEAS will help the EU "punch its weight" in international affairs.

What do innovations brought in under the Lisbon system, such as the EEAS, mean for EU-China relations? The European policy community has long called for the EU to adopt a more coherent policy toward China, one where member states unite behind common objectives rather than compete with each other for market access and contracts. These calls have become frequent in recent months, with the Copenhagen climate conference laying bare fundamental differences between Europe and China on how to tackle climate change and reinforcing impressions - correct or otherwise - that Beijing is adopting an increasing "arrogant" approach in its relations with Western countries.

A glut of reports and policy papers have argued that Europe should be more selective in its engagement with China and look to bolster its dialogue with the United States on how to handle Beijing. The ratification of Lisbon strengthens the EU's foreign policy apparatus and gives it an opportunity to reformulate its China policy - and, judging from the tone of the current debate, a tougher and more realist strategy toward China may be fashioned.

The details of the EEAS are still to be hammered out through negotiations. Calls for a new approach at the policy-level do not seem to have reached European capitals yet - UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband was the latest to visit China in order to secure an exclusive "upgraded" dialogue between London and Beijing. Perhaps most importantly, Lisbon cannot arrest fundamental shifts in global power and can only slow Europe's relative decline.

But it would be a miscalculation for Beijing to dismiss what is happening in Europe. The EU remains China's biggest trading partner and an important source of knowledge and high-technology. It commands considerable soft power resources and forms an influential bloc in multilateral forums such as the G20.

China's long-term development strategy would be undermined if Europe was to mimic the protectionist sentiments that appear to be hardening in the US. Ashton's announcement on the EEAS indicates that the EU may finally be living up to its strategic potential. At a time when the features of post-Lisbon Europe are taking shape, China needs to be aware of how it is seen in Europe and what actions it can take to help mitigate increasingly unfavorable perceptions.

The author is a visiting research fellow at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University.

(China Daily 04/16/2010 page9)