When Catherine Ashton, European Union (EU) foreign policy chief, visits China this week, she will have an opportunity to focus on how to move EU-China ties forward. To her credit, Ashton is not just flying in and out of Beijing. She has been to Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, too. This should give her the opportunity to see the huge contrast in lifestyles that make up China today.
Although they are reportedly strategic partners, on many issues the EU and China seem to be opposed to each other on many issues. This is reflected in the current negotiations on a new partnership agreement which is proving difficult to progress. The high point in their relations was 2003 when China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a positive assessment of the EU. It praised the successful introduction of the euro and the forthcoming enlargement of the EU from 15 to 27 member states.
The EU was seen as an important actor in the new multi-polar world. The EU, for its part, looked forward to building a strategic partnership with China that would be mutually rewarding in terms of increased trade, and economic and political cooperation. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French president Jacques Chirac promised to lift EU arms embargo on China. This promise, however, was not kept and the EU split over the Iraq war, dealing a severe blow to its pretensions to be a global actor.
Since then the EU has taken a number of steps to improve its foreign policy, culminating in last month's decision to establish an EU external action service. This will not be fully operational until next January, but already Ashton is appointing senior diplomats from EU institutions and member states to run the new service. It will not lead to a dramatic change but over time the new service will help develop a culture of cooperation that can only further strengthen EU diplomacy. All member states recognize that only by pooling their resources can they exercise influence in today's world.
China, Ashton has already said, will be a top EU priority. Her views represent the growing fascination with China reflected in the outpouring of policy papers and the constant stream of EU politicians and officials to China. But despite these visits there is little evidence of a genuine strategic partnership.
Apart from the arms embargo and the EU's continuing refusal to recognize China as a market economy, there are numerous disputes on trade and political issues. The EU thinks China is not living up to all its WTO commitments, but Beijing reacts by saying Brussels's fears over Chinese competition are unfounded and points to the large profits made by European firms operating in China.
China is sensitive, too, to the willingness of some EU politicians to meet with the Dalai Lama.