Exploring Chinese History
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Relations With Europe

The following is from a paper entitled "The New Frontier: EU-China Relations", written by Matt Burnett, MA Diplomacy, University of Reading, London School of Economics and Political Science.



In the post-Cold War years, scholars have begun to speak about a triangle of influence in international relations: the US, the EU and Asia. Significant attention has been paid both to US-EU relations as well as US relations with Asia. Less scholarship has been devoted to EU relations with the Far East. Most of the research that has been done in EU-Asian relations has either focused on comparison with the EU’s multilateral counterpart, ASEAN, or relations with its reliable trading partner, Japan. Very little attention, however, has been given to EU relations with China. China presents a new frontier for the European foreign policy. Its exponential economic growth in recent years means that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has tremendous market potential; in 2002 this potential was able to attract enough foreign investment to replace the US as the number one recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI). Though many Asian countries have undergone rapid and sustained economic growth in recent decades, China differentiates itself from these countries with political aspirations that rival their economic ones. So while the European Union has had much economic and some political relations with the countries of Asia, the PRC is enticing the EU to move into the Far East in new and innovative ways. However, China presents policy challenges to the European Union. While the EU’s China policy may not be as high-profile an issue as the Middle East and the war on terror, it stands to present problems for a common foreign, given the difficulty of forming a consensus on China and China skill at playing member states off against each other. This paper seeks to analyze the EC/EU’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. The paper will only look at bilateral relations from 1989 on, in order to discuss the effect of Tiananmen on the EC/EU relationship. Moreover this paper will focus on official relations between the EU and its bodies and the government of Beijing, meaning that a discussion of the PRC’s relations with EU member states as well EC/EU members and their dealings with Greater China (Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) are outside the scope of the research excepting such points which shed light on EU-PRC relations. Two major themes that this paper explores is the EU’s human rights policy towards China and the EU’s role in China’s entry into the WTO. Furthermore, this paper this paper seeks to contribute to the understanding of two things: the implications that the EU’s China policy has on the EU as a foreign policy actor as well as the nature of the EU-China relationship itself. This second focus may seem intuitive, but Anthony Forster appropriately points out that while significant academic attention on the European Union has been devoted to the EU‘s ‘failings … as an effective international actor,… very little attention has been paid to conceptualizing the role of the EU in relation to other nation states, organizations and institutions.’ So while some conclusions about the EU international presence will become evident in this study, it is vital to note the importance that a stock-taking of the EU’s bilateral relations plays in the study of European foreign policy.

Dealing with China

Before proceeding with the nature of European Union policy towards China, some attention must be paid to the actor which the EU is engaging. The People’s Republic of China is the second largest economy in the world . It is also the most populous with 1.3 billion people, making raw economic figures less telling; China’s per capita GDP, $5,000 person/year, makes China one-hundred and twenty-second when compared with the rest of the world. This puts China on the list of developing countries, which fact China takes advantage of in its external relations. So on the one hand, many of the PRC’s citizens live well below the poverty line and its government in asking for concessions in international trade. But on the other hand, the government of the PRC still controls access to one of the largest economies as well as the largest potential markets in the world – a position which gives the PRC bargaining power drastically different than any other developing world. China now stands at a unique point in its long history. While the US and Europe have experienced steady growth and a position of relative power in recent centuries, China’s greatest days still lie in the distant past. Europe, for example, rose from the dark ages to a position of world dominance. Though this dominance has diminished somewhat relative to American power following two bitter world wars, Europe still enjoys (and ever more so) a highly favored position in the international arena. Conversely, China, debatably the world’s oldest civilization, has seen decline in recent past that many Westerners may not be aware of. Whereas for millennia China enjoyed political stability, technological innovation and regional influence far beyond that of Europe, the hundred years following the Opium wars and preceding the Revolution are frequently referred to as the ‘century of shame,’ a period of instability and domination by foreign powers. Another way of looking at it would be to imagine that Europe’s dark ages took place only 100 years ago during which time their relatively superior Islamic neighbors exerted considerably influence over them. This sense of history became palpable at times during the UK’s negotiations on the turn over of Hong Kong. Citing tensions that came under then Governor Chris Patten, one scholar concluded that one must keep in mind the ‘continuing importance of history in the conduct of China’s foreign relations today. In particular there remains the sense of past injustices inflicted upon China and the need, at the very least, for permanent vigilance on the part of its leaders to ensure that this is not repeated.’ So fighting against a shameful recent chapter in their history, China is determined to take a new place on the world stage. In reaction against the dishonor of recent history and borne out of the rapid economic growth, a new sense of Chinese nationalism has developed in the last decade among the Chinese people. The Chinese are increasingly proud of the history and most especially their recent achievements. Internationally, this nationalism presents itself as a desire on the part of the people and government to become not only a regional also a global power. Another important difference about the People’s Republic is the fundamental differences in political philosophy compared to other world powers. The EU, for example, is decidedly multilateral, both in philosophy and in substance. Over the last sixty years, member states have proved that they are relatively willing to yield national sovereignty to EU institutions. While there is lively debate as to just how much sovereignty they should yield and in what areas, member states can and do yield national control in favor of cooperative enterprise. China, on the hand, has much less experience with and faith in multilateralism. The PRC has only been a member of the United Nations since the mid-1970s, and the UN, when compared with the EU, is not very intrusive on national sovereignty. Similarly, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), which China joined in 1991, pales in comparison to the ‘cooperation’ of the EU. With no formal institutions, ‘loosely organized’ working groups, and even informal annual summit meetings, APEC does not aim for a level of integration comparable to Europe’s . China’s peripheral involvement in multilateral is indicative of its commitment to Westphalian sovereignty. Like many Asian countries, national sovereignty is still sacrosanct for the PRC, a necessary condition for international order. For this reason, the Chinese ‘view the European Union as a collection of nation-states, and do not understand the constraints that the Union can place on national sovereignty and decision-making.’ While the PRC’s entrance into the World Trade Organization may be indicative of some movement towards a more involved form of multilateralism, the People’s Republic of China must still be understood as firmly committed to the maintenance of national sovereignty.

Challenges for EU’s China Policy

One problem for European policy toward China is the duality of modern China. The EC has proven its success in dealing with developing countries through the Lome and Cotonou Conventions. While the agreements may not have offered as many concessions as the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) states would have liked, the third countries involved in these Conventions are better off than they would be otherwise. What is more important for the EU, however, is that the EU is able to use the Conventions as a ‘carrot and stick’ for implementing reforms. In addition, EU lending in recent years has incorporated structural adjustment programs, so that recipients in the developing world institute changes towards liberalism and eventually democracy (transparency, fiscal responsibility, etc.). This type of EU external relations varies greatly from the type of diplomacy the EU conducts with fellow OECD countries. Negotiation between the EU and first world nations takes place on equal footing (a fact that many ACP countries resent). European diplomats can use less muscle when dealing with fellow countries of the North, because wealthy countries have things the EU wants. China, however, does not neatly fit into either category. Were China much poorer, the European Union could exert more pressure on China regarding human rights. As it is, however, EU aid to China pales in comparison to its trade with China* so aid can not be used to push China. China also brings too much to the negotiating to play hardball as one might with a negotiating partner of lesser standing; most developing countries have to cater to Northern interests, but China commands such a large market that one cannot negotiate as one normally would with a developing country. Conversely, the PRC has human rights problems uncommon among developed nations. The G-8 countries, for example, rarely discuss each other’s human rights records at summit meetings. To do so would be not only unnecessary (whatever human right abuses might exist among the G-8 do not compare with those in China) but to bring them up at a meeting of equals would be a diplomatic affront. But China still has dreadful abuses in the area of human rights. As a union of democratic states committed to human rights, the EU cannot do nothing regarding China, but due to China’s unique duality, the EU’s options are limited. The EU cannot treat the PRC as it would another developing country yet it needs to treat it differently than other developed ones. However, some of the most pressing challenges for the EU’s China policy are not external. Frustration develops about the European Union as a foreign policy actor when the EU cannot speak with ‘one voice.’ While this is often attributed to the national interests of member states, ambiguous external relations also come directly from EU institutions. The EU’s policy towards China’s human rights abuses is just such an area, where the CFSP, Commission, and Parliament all have divergent approaches. The European Commission, for example, favored ‘constructive engagement’ with China following the Tiananmen massacre. This policy, adopted first by President Bush in 1991, aimed to ‘engag[e] the Chinese in the integration of the international market system while making Beijing abide by the system’s rules and norms.’ However, President Clinton, who came to power in part by criticizing Bush for being soft on the ‘butchers of Beijing,’ brought constructive engagement into question by promising to link trade access to human rights observance. Trade-linkage with human rights did not last for long, weakened perhaps by the Commission’s continuing devotion to constructive engagement with China. The European Commission’s helping hand to China was even more evidenced by its constant support for Chinese entry into the GATT/WTO. While the United States took a hard line approach with China in negotiations on GATT/WTO membership, in part for human rights but also because of a strong anti-communist lobby in the US, Europe remained encouraging of Chinese entry. Former EU trade commissioner Leon Brittan, in particular, sought to resolve tension between the US and China and ‘consistently … stress[ed] cooperation rather than cooperation.’ For example Eglin credits the EU for easing the tensions ‘over one of the major sticking points on the negotiations, that of China’s status as a developing country.’ So by consistently favoring constructive engagement with China over a more aggressive approach, the EU isolated the Americans, which eventually lead to the return of the US to a policy constructive engagement by the late 1990s, allowing for the PRC’s entry into the WTO. The European Union’s role in China’s trade integration could be similar to assertions that Rosemary Hollis made of the EU’s role in the Middle East peace process. Hollis asserts that while the EU was not the principle player involved it had demonstrated the ability to ‘nudge developments in the region in one direction rather than another’ and might be thought of as becoming a ‘power by stealth.’ However, while the EU may have came out of the WTO negotiations with increased trade access as well as a strengthened relationship with China, it did so at the expense of some of its broader foreign policy objectives. Eglin herself, who was very much in favor of China entering the WTO, hints at the real, and potentially problematic, reason that the EU was able to take the negotiating stance that it did.

The fact that the European Union does not face the handicap of a unified supranational trade legislation has enabled its trade commissioner to concentrate on furthering commercial and business interests and on improving trade relations with China …without the baggage of human rights and anti-communist lobbies. Critical statements on China human rights policy are issued but the European Parliament but as a rule do not figure in the Commission’s trade policy objectives. So far Europe has not displayed a penchant for linking the quest for new markets to the spread of democracy.’

In other words, the Commission’s democratic deficit worked to its advantage. The EU achieved its commercial interests and improved EU-China relations. This position, however, insinuates that democratic influences are a liability and not desirable, hardly a defensible position within a political entity which is so firmly committed to liberalism and democracy. Eglin’s statement also hints at the fact that Commission policies removed from accountability to voters and special interests are a tenuous situation. The statement also highlights the disagreement between various EU bodies on the EU’s China policy. The Commission policy of constructive engagement is not only divergent from the European Parliament’s approach but it also conflicts with some of the EU ministerial policies. Directly following the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the European Council strongly criticized the PRC and committed itself to actively pursuing the amelioration of human rights in China. In a statement on June 27, the Council announced it would ‘rais[e] the issue of human rights in China in the appropriate international fora.’ In the years following the EU drafted, tabled or co-sponsored a number of resolutions to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and its Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. However, due in part to insufficient diplomatic resources put behind these resolutions, only the 1995 resolution passed. While no other international fora relating to human right could be used (because China did not belong to them), the US did present the option of using the GATT/WTO as a forum to discuss human rights. The Commission apparently did not agree that the GATT/WTO was ‘appropriate’ forum but perhaps had there been greater cooperation between the Council and Commission a different position would have been adopted. By 1995 the EU began using a new strategy to improve human rights in China. In January of 1995, the first EU-China dialogue on human rights took place in Brussels, with the EU represented by the Troika. Problems arose in the second session when it came out that the EU was tabling another resolution at the UNCHR and China broke off the dialogue. By the time the dialogue resumed, EU diplomats now took a much more cautious stance in negotiations at the UNCHR, fearing that China would again break off dialogue. Philip Baker, an outspoken advocate of human rights, observed that China had ‘invented a superb weapon:’ China was able to ‘channel criticism …into a private forum’ which allowed the EU to demonstrate its commitment to human rights. He further explains: If EU member states threatened to return to the policy of co-sponsoring a resolution, the Chinese could threaten to break of the dialogue. If that were to happen, then the EU member states would appear to have no policy towards human rights in China. In this way, China could threaten to break off a totally valueless dialogue – which was costing them nothing… – and in so doing effectively control EU policy with regard to human rights in China. While Baker’s tone does not portray academic objectivity, his point remains valid that the PRC maintains a favored position in negotiation. Bilateral dialogue alone may not be the best way affect change nor is it likely to keep EU voters like Mr. Baker content. However the EU’s policy of dialogue with China has been ambitiously expanded beyond the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. In 1996, China attended the first Asia-Europe Meeting was held in Bangkok, with representatives from China’s East Asian neighbors and ASEAN countries, and representatives from each EU member state in attendance. The EU has also expanded bilateral talks with China into an annual EU-China Summit, discussing a wide range of issues affecting the EU-China relationship. One could conclude from these efforts to involve China in bilateral and multilateral discussions that the EU’s broader constructive engagement – beyond just integration into the world economy – proves that its intentions for Chinese integration are not just monetary. The European Union seems to be taking inton account that it is in the best interest of the world that the transition of the People’s Republic of China to global prominence take place smoothly through multilateral discussion, in a stability and good will.


In summary, on one hand EU-China policy is a triumph. The European Union played a key role in the PRC’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. In so doing, the EU secured commercial and business interests at the same time as improving relations with a potential key player in world politics. That the EU did this in effect by standing up to the US, who has much stronger ties with the PRC and greater influence in the region, is impressive. On the other hand, EU policy towards China but been incongruent and divisive. The various pillars of the EU have pursued diverging and sometimes conflicting policies towards China’s human rights: a fairly aggressive policy by the Parliament, a proactive but tempered approach the European Council and CFSP, and a lenient approach by the Commission. However the EU’s efforts to bring China to the negotiating table, both bilaterally and multilaterally, may prove the answer to having a cohesive and effective policy towards. Further research into the effect of these efforts on China’s behavior would prove enlightening. If the European Union can engender in the People’s Republic of China a belief in and commitment towards multilateralism, China’s international evolution will likely be peaceful and permanent.


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