- Apr 5, 2009
It seems, Europe has come to its senses and realizing the danger of friendship with China.
The European Union gets more realistic about China—and China gets more realistic about the EU
Jan 21st 2010 | From The Economist print edition
Illustration by Peter Schrank
ONCE upon a time, or about two years ago, the European Union was full of optimism about China, and how it was becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the world. Reports poured out of think-tanks with titles like “Can Europe and China shape the new world order?” Europe had a good chance of persuading China that its interests lay in co-operation over climate change, Africa or nuclear proliferation, it was said. And Europe was better placed than America: European co-operation was a model and, unlike America, Europe was not a strategic rival.
Head into ancient history, or to 2004, and such leaders as France’s Jacques Chirac were telling Chinese leaders they shared a “common vision of the world”, based on a “multipolar” system in which “international balance” would be achieved by closer ties between Europe, China and Russia. In case that jab in America’s eye was not clear enough, France and Germany led calls for the lifting of an EU arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. (European discussions on lifting the embargo were shelved in 2005, under heavy American pressure.) This was also the age of books with titles like “Why Europe will Run the 21st Century”. Europe was bullish about its exemplary wealth, social harmony, and “post-national” kindliness, and how such values would soon span the globe.
The mood is different now. Inside China, America and Europe several bubbles of optimism have burst at the same time. Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, a London based think-tank, says he and others who felt China was about to embrace multilateralism were guilty of “wishful thinking”. A closed-door gathering of Chinese, American and European officials and analysts, known as the Stockholm China Forum, this week heard how China has been unhelpful over climate change, Iran’s nuclear programme (China is counselling patience, not sanctions), its currency (kept artificially cheap despite American and EU protests) and its cyber-attacks on Western corporate and public computer networks. Such attacks, many coming from China, have reached damaging levels of intensity, and are now “high on the radar” of leaders, it was reported.
In 2009 China jailed more dissidents, sacked reformist editors and executed a British citizen for drug smuggling, brushing aside British government appeals that he was mentally ill. China has bullied Barack Obama over arms sales to Taiwan and meeting the Dalai Lama. In private meetings with European envoys, Chinese officials have unveiled a hubristic new argument for lifting the arms embargo: unless it goes, in years from now Europe “will not be able to buy its arms from China”.
In Brussels it is hard to overestimate the shock caused by the EU’s failure to achieve its goals at December’s climate-change summit in Copenhagen. In the EU hard problems are fixed like this: call a summit of leaders, set out public goals for action, declare a final deadline and then thrash out a compromise behind closed doors. Deals are done with a judicious blend of appeals to principle, arm-twisting and redistribution towards less wealthy nations. That model failed utterly in Copenhagen.
True, everyone has a different story about Copenhagen. Europeans are cross with America, India and others in a “low-ambition coalition”. But their strongest words are reserved for China, accused of a refusal to accept anything touching on its sovereignty and of secretly inciting small, poor allies to obstruct a deal. American officials say the summit came too soon. They complain that the Europeans thought they could bounce Mr Obama into binding emissions caps that Congress was not willing to approve. Senior Chinese analysts say that European threats of border tariffs on Chinese goods fuelled a sense that the rich world was out to “get China” and tax its growth.
American and European officials at least agree that Copenhagen was a disappointment. China’s government hailed the outcome as excellent. That does not sound like a responsible stakeholder talking. China was amazingly rude at Copenhagen, sending a deputy minister to shout at with Mr Obama, for instance. Such assertiveness punctures happy Euro-dreams of a multipolar world. It turns out that the only thing that alarms Europeans more than a swaggering American president is one who seems weak. And Copenhagen popped yet another bubble—the idea that leading by example can be used to coerce others. Europe’s strategy was to press others to match its own concessions on carbon emissions. But the EU barely existed at the talks.
E pluribus disunity?
American and Chinese illusions about European unity are also popping like soapsuds in the sun. The Lisbon treaty came into force in December. EU leaders appointed underwhelming figures to fill the top posts it created, and are now squabbling about how the new structures will work. Although it is early days, officials in Beijing and Washington now suspect that this is about as united as Europe is going to get.
Where now? The good news is that European and American views of China are converging. Arguments about engagement or containment now sound quaint, and fantasies involving China as Europe’s ally against American hegemony sound worse. China looks like a giant that has every right to rise, yet rejects many values that Europe and America share.
The bad news is that clashes with China loom over trade barriers and currency manipulation. Some in Europe and America are converging in the direction of protectionism. The coming year will pose some severe tests. It is in everyone’s interests to avoid a trade war. And European and American policymakers seem to understand what they share, and what China wants from the world, more clearly than before. But that is only a start.