A new European approach to China

Bulletin article
Mark Leonard
03 April 2006

Until now EU policy towards China has focused mainly on domestic issues: opening up China’s economy, protecting intellectual property, improving respect for human rights, and securing the readmission of illegal migrants. This has made sense, partly because China’s monumental size gives its domestic policies global significance, but above all because China’s primary concern is its internal development.

However, China’s ‘go global’ strategy for energy, natural resources and markets has extended its reach into Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Latin America. China’s increasingly global role is leading it into conflict with EU foreign policy. American commentators, such as Robert Kagan and John Mearsheimer, draw parallels between the rise of China and the emergence of other great powers like Germany under the Kaiser and Japan in the early decades of the 20th century. They view China as a revolutionary power that may overturn the international system to find its ‘place in the sun’.

But the reality is the opposite. China’s potential clash with the West stems from its conservatism, rather than its activism. For Beijing, being a responsible global player means accepting the status-quo: not invading other countries, not trying to overthrow regimes, and above all not interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states. European policymakers, on the other hand, influenced by genocide in Rwanda, terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and nuclear proliferation in Iran, feel a responsibility to intervene in countries that threaten human rights and international security.

These clashing ideas of responsibility have led the West into conflict with China – both at the United Nations and in problem countries. European policymakers are concerned by China’s policy of offering unconditional political support, economic aid and weapons to autocratic regimes that might otherwise collapse or be susceptible to international pressure (including Sudan, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Angola). China’s recent white paper on Africa states that Beijing will offer aid without conditions – thus frustrating western attempts to use assistance to promote political reform and conflict resolution. Of course, China’s support for autocratic regimes is not designed primarily to upset the West: Beijing wants access to oil, gas and other natural resources, as well as supportagainst Taiwan at the UN. But the effect is the same.

What can the EU do about this divergence with China? More than one would think. While Beijing bristles at attempts to change its domestic politics, it is surprisingly susceptible to outside pressure on foreign policy. Chinese leaders keen to be seen as responsible players, have designed a strategy to re-assure the world: the ‘peaceful rise’. They stress China’s lack of hegemonic ambitions, as well as its commitment to peace, multilateralism and regional institutions.

The first challenge for the EU is to develop a common approach to China. Too often European countries compete against each other to be Beijing’s best political friend and trading partner, thus undermining their ability to influence Chinese policy. This is exactly what happened in 2004, when Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder promised to lift the EU arms embargo. Other European leaders then came under pressure to follow suit, fearing that China might see them as hostile. The election of Angela Merkel, who is more out-spoken on human rights and intellectual property than her predecessor, provides an opportunity for the EU to rethink its stance on China.

The second strand of an EU policy should be further support for China’s integration into global institutions, so that it has a stake in making them work more effectively. China’s membership of the WTO, and its participation in some G8 meetings, has already helped to expand its definition of the national economic interest beyond the very short term. The challenge now is to achieve the same in the security sphere, by linking western political concessions to changes in Chinese behaviour. For example, China is interested in joining several anti-proliferation regimes – such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Group – in order to achieve greater respectability as a potential buyer of weapons. The EU should support China’s applications but put pressure on China to take more responsibility for halting the proliferation of weapons, for example by ending arms sales to the dodgier African regimes, or joining the ‘proliferation security initiative’ (the US-led informal coalition that aims to thwart shipments of weapons of mass destruction).

The EU should also encourage China to take part in more UN peacekeeping missions, which it has – until very recently – generally avoided. With troops on the ground in conflict zones, China would better understand why western countries support the principle of ‘humanitarian intervention’. China will probably want to adhere to the principle of ‘non-interference’, but may become more flexible about its interpretation. There are obvious channels available for discussions on these issues: Beijing has launched dialogues on international security issues with Britain, France, Germany and the EU itself.

Thirdly, the EU should systematically raise those aspects of China’s foreign policy that it finds problematic – in private during state visits, and in public in international organisations. China’s stance on the Iranian nuclear issue shows how this kind of pressure can work. During 2005, Chinese policy-makers maintained a trappist silence on Iran, refusing to apply public pressure to the regime. But several European leaders raised the issue with President Hu Jintao during his European tour, while top British, French and German diplomats went to Beijing to seek Chinese support. Once India and Russia had taken a tougher stance on Iran, China feared isolation at the UN. China is now fairly supportive of the EU line. European leaders should not underestimate the power of publicly embarrassing China, for example by forcing Beijing to veto measures it does not like in the UN Security Council, or by mentioning China’s problematic actions in speeches.

EU governments must be careful not to undermine their strategy by applying double standards, for example by talking of a rule-based economic order but imposing restrictions on Chinese imports. The EU should get serious about its China policy, while the Chinese government is open to influence. That opportunity may not last forever.

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