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Against a Great Wall

China has put paid to EU’s delusions of a special relationship with it. But Beijing dominates Europe’s trade in a way no other country does, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: May 20, 2010 09:46 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

Five years ago, China was the Great Yellow Hope of the European Union (EU). Brussels believed the Middle Kingdom was moving along the same path of postmodern pacificism being taken by Europe. Today, Europeans recognise this was a Great Western Delusion.

Three or four years ago, European foreign policy circles did little but complain about the United States of Bush and the bullyboys in the Kremlin. China, however, was acclaimed as the power that understood the worth of European civilisation. “EU diplomats exude optimism when asked about China,” wrote Katinka Barysch of the Centre of European Reform. “Chinese leaders, unlike most Russians and Americans, like and respect the European Union.”

Brussels began to see values in Beijing’s worldview that were invisible to countries closer to China. China, it was said, sought a multipolar world based on international law. Its politik was all about soft power. EU President Jose Manuel Barroso, after a 2005 visit to China, spoke of an EU-China-US “triangulation” that would mould “a 21st century world order.” He envisioned a “cooperative Eurasia under Sino-European leadership and a China-centred US policy towards Asia.” Some saw Europe as an elder statesmen teaching the Chinese novice the ways of the world. “Europe is being asked to face its historical responsibility,” declared an analysis by a Spanish think-tank. Europeans today wonder what they were smoking. At this year’s Brussels Forum, the disillusionment was palpable. “Wishful thinking,” was how European analyst Charles Grant termed Europe’s China fixation.

Even as early as two years ago, European officials were more positive about China than about the US. Beijing seems to have assiduously fed this rose-tinted vision. “On the whole China acts in accordance with international law,” said the Paris-based Institute for Strategic Studies. “China’s alleged role in the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction is exaggerated,” said another European analysis. If anyone disputed US estimates of China’s real defence expenditure it was a European analyst.

China had no illusions of what Europe meant to it. Europeans were wealthy but weak. They should be wooed for economic reasons, but ignored for strategic ones. Beijing treated the relationship like a game of chess “with 27 opponents crowding the other side of the board and squabbling about which piece to move.”

The EU became China’s number one trading partner but Beijing put up so many barriers that the trade deficit ballooned to nearly 170 billion euros — in Beijing’s direction. Europe complained and was ignored. Europe is economically big, said Chinese academic Pan Wei, “but we no longer fear it because we know that the EU needs China more than China needs the EU.” Grant says “We have suffered more from yuan manipulation than the US.” But Europe had to wait for the US to do something about it.

Though scepticism had begun to creep into corporate and official circles, the brutal suppression of the Tibetan riots in 2008 popped the Sinophile bubble. A poll of the five largest European nations saw China replace the US as the “greatest threat to global stability” — the figure was 12 per cent in 2006 and jumped to 35 per cent post-riots. A review of relations last year by the European Council for Foreign Relations was brutal. “EU’s China strategy is based on an anachronistic belief that China, under the influence of European engagement, will liberalise its economy, improve the rule of law and democratise its politics…yet China’s foreign and domestic policy has evolved in a way that has paid little heed to European values, and today Beijing regularly contravenes or even undermines them.” China’s treatment of the EU is “akin to diplomatic contempt.”

It was a treatment encouraged by the fragmented manner of the EU’s response to China. Germany led the China hardline. At the other end of the spectrum was Romania, which Chinese officials described as their “all-season partner”. However, this mosaic allowed Beijing to play various EU members against each other — and it did so with skill.

The final nail in the coffin was the Copenhagen climate summit. China ruthlessly reduced Europe’s green dreams to carbon ash. John Hemmings of the Royal United Service Institute declared “the great love affair between Europe and China is over.” Grant said the EU “should abandon the fiction of a ‘strategic partnership’ which cannot be meaningful when the values of the two sides are so different.”

What Brussels or other European capitals cannot agree on is how the China policy should be recalibrated. Some argue for a re-engagement with countries like South Korea and Japan. Some push for a look at India and Brazil. Others want to hitch themselves to the US because a united West can make China back down. Some believe Europe should
just sit and wait, that Chinese assertiveness is just a passing phase. But these are theories divorced, so far, from reality.

China dominates Europe’s trade and investment in a way that no combination of emerging economies can replace. Obama, the first US president in decades whose background is not instinctively Atlanticist, has so far displayed only impatience with Europe. Brussels is still in shock at his decision to skip the last EU-US summit on the grounds that the previous one had been so unproductive.

As is usual with Europe and its foreign policy, the ultimate reason that its China policy fell apart was that it could not speak in one voice and one mouth. And no arrangement or permutation it has with the rest of the world will be able to compensate for that single failing.

First Published: May 19, 2010 21:49 IST