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EU Not on China’’s Chessboard

John Lee

At the height of the George W. Bush presidency, in 2004, Chinese state-owned media enthusiastically pushed the prospect of China and states within the European Union such as France working together in strategic unison to promote a more peaceful and stable multi-polar world.

Yet fast forward six years, and it’s clear the visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (and EU President Jose Manuel Barroso) to China late last month was only the latest attempt to revive Europe’s relevance as a major centre of power alongside Beijing and Washington. Indeed, counter-intuitive as it seems, seeking a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with Beijing is only playing to Chinese strengths and European weaknesses—accelerating the European Union’s strategic irrelevance. Instead, working with Washington to help manage China’s rise ought to be the EU’s strategic endgame.

The French-Sino relationship is an important one for the EU given that Paris will assume the presidency of the G8 and G20 from this November. In contrast to recent periods of tension with Beijing over issues such as Chinese policies in Tibet and Africa, Sarkozy was received warmly by Chinese President Hu Jintao. But despite talk about a much closer and more comprehensive economic and security partnership, Beijing will hold back on any genuine strategic partnership with Paris or Brussels. As debates within Chinese strategic elites and officials since the turn of the century indicate, it all comes down to how China views the future grand strategic chessboard.

Even as China remains obsessed about how best to deal with a much more powerful United States, its strategists see no room for European powers at the highest echelons of great powers in the future. In particular, despite public declarations about a preference for a multi-polar world, Beijing ultimately seeks a bi-polar future: with itself and the United States at the top, looking over ‘declining powers’ such as France, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Russia.

Despite the enormous size of the collective EU economy, Chinese thinkers frequently use a dismissive phrase to characterize its default strategy for managing Europe: let the barbarians divide and rule the barbarians. China sees Europe as an increasingly irrelevant strategic actor where the sum of the whole is less than the sum of its parts—with the additional problem that no individual European state is powerful enough to exercise any leverage over China. Therefore, European hopes that a future G2 (the US and China) can still be transformed into a G3 (the United States, China and Europe) will not find meaningful support in China.

If the genuine opportunities for EU-Sino strategic cooperation are few, the genuine opportunities for a coordinated EU-US strategic partnership (and partnership between the United States and key European states) to help manage China’s rise are immense—a point that’s paradoxically better appreciated in Beijing than it is in Brussels or Washington.

On a number of specific issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation and climate change, European and US interests are remarkably aligned. Both are becoming more concerned about Chinese mercantilist trade and currency policies and Beijing’s willingness to support regimes in countries such as Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran in return for access to energy and mineral resources. Both see a link between the likelihood that China will rise as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ to progress in domestic political reform and greater respect for human rights. Revealingly, Beijing has consistently gone to great lengths to avoid the discussion of its poor human rights record in any multilateral forum that involves both the US and the EU.

More broadly, Beijing’s diplomats fear international isolation above all else. After all, internal political and strategic documents consistently show that China is acutely aware of its domestic weaknesses and strategic isolation. It still has a GDP per capita outside the top one hundred countries and is distrusted by every major power in the world. While its ‘comprehensive national power’ remains relatively weak, Beijing seeks to avoid overt confrontation and competition with Washington. Despite occasional hubris, China is still committed to Deng Xiaoping’s strategy to ‘bide time, conceal capabilities and rise gradually in order to not raise alarm.’ The fact that Washington and key European capitals have focused on wooing China bilaterally on a number of issues, rather than developing a unified and coordinated diplomatic front before negotiating with China, has been a source of much relief for Beijing.

For Europe to retain its strategic relevance into the future, it needs to disrupt Beijing’s plans for a G2 world that excludes key European capitals. The best way of doing so is to work with Washington and find common strategies to ‘manage’ China’s rise, or at least the consequences of its re-emergence.

The EU sent over 450 delegations to China in 2009 in an attempt to improve its standing and leverage in Beijing. This has brought the continent little success. Rather than looking east, Europe needs to return its gaze westwards across the Atlantic.

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