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Waiting for the indispensable China-EU axis to emerge
By Jonathan Holslagand Gustaaf Geeraerts (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-20 07:56

The Sino-European Union (EU) partnership is going through an important reflection period. The past two turbulent years were difficult, but the positive thing is that mutual expectations might finally become more realistic.

As it stands, the Sino-EU partnership is not strategic, but it has vast strategic potential. The challenge will be to work out a pragmatic consensus on how to gradually turn joint strategic interests into more result-driven cooperation. This process will inevitably have to be commensurate with the two partners' internal transformation.

After a period of difficulties over issues such as Tibet, climate change and alleged economic protectionism, the two sides are now figuring out how best to position themselves. China is executing an important review of its major relationships and one of the questions is whether the EU will still be counted among one of them. There is growing momentum for synergies with the US, leading to speculation about a new trans Pacific axis.

But for China, maintaining good relations with the other powers, too, will remain crucial. For Europe, the adoption of the Lisbon reform treaty could halt its descent into strategic redundancy and instigate the EU to assure protagonists like China that it indeed has the ambition to develop solid strategic partnerships.

The next year will thus be one of relation therapy. The EU and China need to define for themselves what they consider to be the main interests driving their partnership. For the EU, especially, it is a matter of finding a remedy against the kind of diplomatic schizophrenia in which shortsighted policies of the member states counteracted the proselytizing European Commission.

It would be a good start to evaluate the effectiveness of the current instruments for engaging China. More efforts should be made to bring member states around the table to deduce a common denominator from their often divergent national interests. If the EU wants to constructively engage China, it will have to engage itself collectively first.

Simultaneously, China and the EU have to agree on which interests they will build the pillars of their strategic partnership. One of the main setbacks in the EU-China partnership has always been its obsession with dialogues without a common view on how the new world order actually binds them together.

Obviously, the global economic crisis has confirmed the necessity to reshape our economies. Both sides face an important challenge to combat unemployment, to improve social welfare and to be more efficient in using scarce natural resources.

Increased investment in innovation, a secure climate for creative development and a dynamic services sector will be vital for developing new and sustainable sources for growth. This is an individual responsibility, but it can only be successful in a climate of trust and reciprocal openness.

Both sides face similar social challenges: an ageing population, a heterogeneous ethnic society, growing urban complexes and substantial internal economic differences. They have a common interest in enhancing social equality and welfare. While facing different economic limitations, both sides aim to make their development inclusive and harmonious. Rather than lecturing each other, this creates the opportunity to exchange lessons learned. The emphasis should not be on differences per se, but on commitment and progress.

China and Europe both are regional powers with broad global interests. As a result of the rising global engagements and increasing economic interests abroad, the EU and China are geopolitically more proximate than ever before. Hence, they have an important joint interest to promote stability and sustainable development in those regions that they share in their extended neighborhoods.

This is particularly the case of the Middle East, Africa, and South-Central Asia. We have to ensure that these regions do not develop into a belt of insecurity that endangers our development.

There is a strong need to work together to enhance security, to guarantee that our policies benefit lasting stability and development, to invest in the safety of our energy supplies, to limit the impact of environmental hazards, to support effective governance, tackle non-traditional security threats, and enhance maritime security.

Growing interests are expected to create the need to exert influence, but it should be cooperative and aim at sharing the costs of maintaining security.

We are moving with increasing pace toward a multipolar world order. In this order the major powers will have to balance between meeting increasing international expectations and persistent strong internal needs. Multipolarity will make global governance much more complex and is by no means a guarantee for multilateralism.

To be effective, multilateral organizations need to reflect the emerging new international order. But effective multilateralism also implies that all parties are committed to overcoming diverging expectations and trying to reach a pragmatic consensus on how to make foreign policies complementary and mutually supportive. The EU and China could be in the vanguard here as well.

As the unipolar phase of the world passes into history, the EU and China have shown that they are not anxious to slide into another era of great power rivalry.

Such contests would severely weaken the two sides' chances of achieving internal sustainable development. In spite of all the frictions and misunderstandings, both sides need each other if they are to develop an alternative for harsh international anarchy.

Successful bilateral cooperation will be crucial for promoting global peaceful development. It will also give them the scope to strengthen their internal unity, which will be important for boosting positive power vis--vis others. If China and the EU are serious about changing the nature of great power politics, a strategic axis between them, built on mutual benefit and understanding, will be indispensable.

Jonathan Holslag and Gustaaf Geeraerts are head of research and director of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.

(China Daily 11/20/2009 page9)