EU-China relations back on track

Europe’s relations with China appear to be back on track. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent tour of Europe was by all accounts a success, with both sides eager to put behind them last year’s unpleasantness — a high-level China-EU meeting was canceled because of China’s objections to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama. Yet all has not been settled.

Mr. Wen skipped France on his tour and the prime minister found himself in unfamiliar shoes — or dodging shoes. That is certainly not the image that Chinese leaders want to conjure in the eyes of their citizens or the rest of the world.

China and Europe are eager to build a more robust relationship. Both seek a multipolar world and see stronger ties between them as the means to that end. Economics provides the foundation for their broader relationship. The EU’s exports to China totaled $92.7 billion in 2007, and that figure expanded 12 percent in 2008. China is Europe’s fastest growing export market; its exports to Europe reached 232 billion euro. All is not well, though, on the trade front as China’s trade surplus reached $210 billion last year, creating its own tensions.

Those frictions have been exacerbated by political issues. The protests over the Olympic torch relay, when Chinese athletes were physically assaulted by pro-Tibet demonstrators, seared Chinese public perceptions of Europe. Mr. Sarkozy’s decision to host the Dalai Lama — whom China considers “a splittist” — compounded the anger. The decision came just before a top-level meeting between China and the EU, of which France held the six-month rotating presidency.

Since China a year earlier had punished Germany after German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted the Dalai Lama, Paris’ indifference to Chinese objections could not go unchallenged. The result was cancellation of the EU-China summit and a purported black eye for Mr. Sarkozy, who has been castigated again for putting his penchant for flamboyant diplomacy above France’s national interests.

Displeasure noted, the EU-China meeting was rescheduled. Mr. Wen went to Europe, stopping in Berlin, London, Madrid, Davos and Brussels, but pointedly skipping Paris. The meetings were positive. Mr. Wen said the visit “increased our mutual trust and that has played a big role in boosting China-EU ties.”

Mr. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, was equally upbeat, noting that the talks reflected “a kind of atmosphere that only exists between partners who want to reinforce their cooperation.” Indeed, Mr. Barroso said, none of the world’s main problems “will be solved without strong cooperation between China and the EU.”

As proof, Chinese and EU officials signed nine cooperation agreements worth about $80 million on issues ranging from protecting intellectual property to fighting drug trafficking and illegal logging. The two sides pledged to work together to help stabilize the global economy and to fight global warming. The former will be put to the test when London hosts the next meeting of the Group of 20 nations in April. Chinese and European officials will discuss financial and trade issues about the same time. Progress on the fight against global warming will be measured when the Copenhagen conference convenes at yearend.

Mr. Wen’s visit to Brussels was his first in five years. His stopover, and the warm meetings with Mr. Barroso, signal a new role for the European Union in Beijing’s diplomacy. Traditionally, China has put bilateral relations at the forefront of its European diplomacy and has thus been better able to exercise leverage one on one, utilizing its economic clout to sway negotiating partners. Brussels, where power was diffused and human rights lobbies had more sway, was seen as a second-rate partner. No longer. Credit the continuing courting of China by European officials and the establishment and deepening of ties between the EU bureaucracy and its Chinese counterparts.

Of course, bilateral relations with European governments will continue to consume China’s diplomats: Beijing’s leverage is far greater in that context. The $80 million in EU-related agreements pales in comparison with the $15 billion in business deals concluded elsewhere on the tour.

Bilaterally or multilaterally, Mr. Wen has work to do. Opinion polls show China’s image is sinking in European eyes. Mr. Wen admitted that his country needs to reach out to and cultivate ordinary Europeans, whose views were reflected in the actions of one protester at Cambridge: He threw his shoe at the prime minister during a speech. That gesture mimicked the treatment former U.S. President George W. Bush received during his last visit to Iraq — an unpleasant association and a real shock for a leader who rarely encounters public anger directly. Jarring though it may have been, Mr. Wen and his colleagues must be ready to brave similar confrontations as China assumes a higher international profile in the future.