Europe’s China blindness

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 18 March 2010

‘I only say China, China, China’, the German Chancellor warned, and everybody knew what that meant. Soon the Chinese would come to shift the balance of power and dominate the world. The audience didn’t need to strain their imagination to figure out where this would leave Europe, let alone Germany.

It was not Chancellor Angela Merkel, though, who had said these words but one of her predecessors, the now largely forgotten Kurt-Georg Kiesinger more than four decades ago. Europe’s fear of China, however, wasn’t even news then. ‘Let China sleep, for when she awakes, she will shake the world’, French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte once famously warned.

Unfortunately for Europeans, it is not China that is sleeping now but Europe.

While China transformed itself from the shambles of Mao’s Great Leap Forward into a global superpower, Europe stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the new geopolitical realities. In the minds of European politicians, business leaders and diplomats, Europe remains the hub of the world and China an immature newcomer on the global stage. And this is how Europeans have been treating China for decades.

Europe’s relationship with China resembles that of the old nobility against the nouveau riche or of ageing parents who keep refusing to treat their grown-up children as adults. It’s little wonder that the Chinese, tired of being either admonished or looked down on, are not only showing less and less respect but increasingly open contempt for Europe.

Official relations between the European Union and China are still founded on an agreement both sides entered into in 1985. That was when China was still a quantité négligable in foreign and economic affairs and Europe actually had a trade surplus with the People’s Republic.

Needless to say, economic relations between Europe and China have changed dramatically since then. The European Union is now China’s largest trading partner and China is the EU’s second largest partner. Meanwhile, the former European trade surplus has turned into a substantial deficit.

Despite the more than two dozen official dialogues happening between Europe and China, the basic relationship is firmly stuck in the last century. ‘The EU treats China as if it were still an emerging power’, a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations summed it up.

That China’s public perception in Europe has not changed much may have something to do with European news reporting about China. Unlike the Australian media, which frequently stress the importance of China’s continuing economic growth for Australian exports, European newspapers focus on very different stories: Reports about lead polluted toys from China scared European parents for weeks; tabloids regularly rage about Chinese copycats plagiarising everything from European luxury cars to medicines; and Chinese hackers threatening government and business secrets frequently make headlines.

China, on the other hand, also does little to improve its image in Europe. At the Copenhagen climate conference, the Chinese barely concealed how little they cared for ambitious European initiatives. They left little doubt as to who was effectively determining the course of international climate policy. To add insult to injury, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao later blamed the failure of the summit on inadequate European diplomacy.

To European politicians, all these symptoms show how little China has developed. If only it were to engage more with enlightened Europe, so they believe, the Chinese would repent and become a more respectable part of the community. If only they heeded well-meant European advice, the Chinese would liberalise their economy, become democratic, and strengthen the rule of law.

Such wishful thinking actually passes as European foreign policy. And so the European Commission issues press release after press release on Chinese human rights violations. It also continues an increasingly farcical human rights ‘dialogue’ with China, in which the Chinese meet European accusations over Tibet, lack of civil liberties, and capital punishment with counter accusations over prison overcrowding in the European Union. Despite such ‘engagement’, when the French president travels to China to seal a multi-billion Euro deal for Airbus, he wisely leaves his human rights minister at home.

Europe remains torn between competing policy objectives and blinded by a refusal to give up its pretence of global leadership. Furthermore, EU member states are far from speaking with one voice on foreign affairs.

The appointment of British baroness Catherine Ashton as European High Representative for Foreign Affairs has not changed this. Too different are not only the historical ties of the European Union’s individual member states with China but also their present-day convictions when it comes to free trade and human rights. When Baroness Ashton thus wants to increase the European Union’s engagement with China and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos even argues for a lift of the European Union’s arms embargo in return for Chinese concessions on climate policy, the chances that any of these initiatives will be implemented across Europe are nil. There is no European foreign policy. The Chinese know this, and so they can safely ignore anything coming out of Brussels.

With Europe’s political leaders divided over their China policy, its business leaders hardly have a clearer idea about how best to engage with the Chinese. A recent poll of top German executives revealed their indecisiveness – 70 per cent named China as the region with the best growth prospects but only 11 per cent had made any substantial investments in the People’s Republic.

In Europe, one would not find a fraction of the China fascination that has gripped so many Australian commentators. Although the statistics about China’s currency holdings and its resource consumption are impossible to ignore, the Europeans have not yet realised what this means for them. Perhaps the Europeans can sense that a multi-polar world order, an idea often evoked in foreign policy circles, will eventually assign them a place at the side table only.

The Europeans are ignoring both the opportunities and dangers of China at their peril. Closing their eyes to the Chinese awakening will not put the Chinese dragon back to sleep.

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