The potential importance of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton's visit to China this week should not be underestimated. It could not only be significant for Europe's role and position in the world today, but also be important for China's still-emerging new status and policies in the new constellation of power, respect and influence.
As the Chinese economy expands to a point where it is only surpassed by the United States, it may be argued that Beijing should define more clearly its new role, just as much as Europe needs to find its rightful place in the new architecture.
Bilateral meetings could become a major stepping stone, in a series of such events and meetings involving global leaders, to deal with problems affecting not only their image and credibility, but the fate of billions around the world.
The overall EU-China relationship includes bilateral issues such as the general adjustment to new trade patterns affected by China's surge and the economic crisis, as well as the long-standing request by China for the EU to grant it market economy status, yuan exchange rates, access to markets or intellectual property protection and the lifting of the EU arms embargo.
If any headway is to be made on these, or the apparently stalled negotiations on a new EU-China Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) to replace the 1980s trade accord, it is more likely to surface at the forthcoming annual EU-China Summit in Brussels in October. Europe and China could show some finely tuned leadership and synergy to everyone's benefit.
Relations between Beijing and Brussels marked their 35th anniversary recently, and should be free of the impediments and frictions associated with Washington. Europe and China, up to now, do not regard each other as potential "peer-competitors" and the Chinese leadership and strategists do not see the EU as a possible security threat.
Since the 2004-2005 political fiasco that saw some EU leaders move to lift the embargo on defense exports to China, only to be strong-armed back in line by the US and other pressures, European autonomy is felt to be compromised or still only an objective. Some EU members also still display a strong affinity for transatlantic reassurance rather than European solidarity.
Economically, outside Germany, the EU has seen its credibility seriously eroded by the successive national credit and budgetary crises in the Eurozone and increasingly strident calls for protectionist policies. Conversely, the EU and some of its corporate interests have maintained their complaints of Chinese policies that they say treat them unfairly and restrict their market access.
Beijing may even tend to regard Europe's attraction to be slipping behind the bubbling Asian regional market, or even African or Middle Eastern wealth in natural resources. On the other hand, the EU and other Western economies have probably emerged to become more realistic about their initial inclination to see and ask China to become the global growth engine that drives them out of the recession, although German high-end capital goods exports to China may have indeed found the right formula. But in a period that may be verging on the second leg of double-dip recession, more coordination among countries is certainly desirable, whether they are leaders or followers. China itself may be facing a difficult transition to a different economic model, according to Michael Pettis of Guanghua University and the Carnegie Endowment.
Even if questioned internationally and internally, Europe still has a unique and positive message and role for the future. Its messengers must aspire to missions higher than mere damage control. They must also have the capacity to define Europe's singular role to their partners and build a new relationship of trust and common enterprise to address historic global challenges.
All this, it must be underlined, amounts to almost insurmountable odds in the midst of a European economic and institutional crisis, when some are calling for policy-makers to get tough with China.
If there was ever a time for European and Chinese leaders to show their best, it may be now. They could conduct themselves routinely or ceremoniously, but they could also seize the opportunity to establish their rightful positions in world affairs.
The author is director of the Asia Europe Project Information Service based in Brussels.