#26 event report: Back to Polygamy: Multilateralism in China-EU Relations

Back to Polygamy: Multilateralism in China-EU Relations

May 22, 2013, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Prof. Dr. ZHOU Hong 周弘, Director, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


Professor Zhou opened her speech by addressing some of the common stereotypes that cloud relations between China and Europe. For many in Europe, China appears to have a dual personality. While it purports to support European integration, it uses subversive measures to undermine European strength and disintegrate a more cohesive political and economic union. As such, China is often viewed as contributing to an asymetry of powers between member states and the EU government in Brussels. This stereotype stems from a lack of understanding among both parties.

Along those lines, Europe has a rather comparable image among most Chinese. In China, the EU is seen as playing a shuanghuang (双簧), or two-man comic show. In essence, while one actor makes certain gestures to the audience, the other dances around and acts out something entirely to the contrary. To many Chinese, it seems that European countries have adopted such behavior in a wide range of issues, particularly trade policy, saying one thing and doing another.

Moving forward, Professor Zhou recapped the major milestones in the EU-China relationship. October 2003 marked the beginning of what some have coined the “Sino-EU honeymoon.” At that time, leaders from the EU and China announced their willingness to pursue a “comprehensive strategy partnership,” a phrase that was echoed by rhetoric among major players in industry, government, academia, and journalism. China issued its first policy paper on the EU, and the EU followed through with its fifth such analysis of the Chinese side. Furthermore, programs like the National Indicative Program fortified such pronouncements with tangible projects to boost cooperation. At the pinnacle of such collaboration was the Galileo satellite navigation project, which had theretofore been met with a degree of resistance from the United States.

Soon, however, the honeymoon ended, giving way to disenchantment. Trade disputes plagued the once-happy marriage, as did state visits by the Dalai Lama and protests during the procession of the Olympic torch leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Against this backdrop, Professor Zhou noted that some of her colleagues argue for the need to hedge the EU-China relationship rather than cooperate with full sincerity. According to such Cold War style of thinking, there are conflicts of interest; therefore, in a search for equilibrium, the bilateral ties must transmit across a “synergetic constellation,” otherwise known as checks and balances. Such an equilibrium is met only through constant adjustments, conflicts, game-plaing, and in extreme cases, even wars. However, Professor Zhou categorically rejected such arguments, noting that aforementioned scholars have completely forgotten the lessons of post-WW2 Europe, namely that legal provisions and a spirit of cooperation help grow markets and raise living standards.

In order to better understand the unique nature of Europe, Professor Zhou returned to the honeymoon metaphor. According to her framework, a nightmare marriage is when, after the wedding, one partner discovers that the spouse has an unknown past or is changing rapidly. With regard to international politics, China has only recently discovered that the EU is changing, expanding rapidly and continuously redefining its role. At the same time, many in the EU have come to the realization that China’s history makes it difficult to understand. It is a nation that is proud, but sometimes not terribly secure.

The EU “sui generis,” or “uniqie characteristics” can be found it its core philosophy ” unity in diversity”. But this complicates the sufficiently difficult task of building rapport among international actors. The EU divides itself not only between the central Brussels administration and the member state governments, but also among various functions and sectors. Such divisions of power are in constant change, particularly since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. Professor Zhou referenced a personal anecdote: her institute at CASS used to invite different European ambassadors to a particular annual event. Following the 2007 treaty, the EU ambassador overrode that decision despite some diplomats having already accepted the invitation, creating a slew of complications. Such stories demonstrate how the EU leaves China totallly confounded. The Chinese government must approach specific member state governments to solve particular issues, and teh EU has no territory, just institutions. Yet in the end, the financial ties make a divorce both unfeasible and undesirable.

Professor Zhou then moved to a comparison between China’s relationships with European member states and the EU government. Whereas China and the then-European Community established diplomatic relations in 1975, certain northern European countries had done so bilaterally before the EU had begun to take shape. Thus, relations between China and the EU and China and EU member states developed in parallel. Both tiers allow for different types of communication. The EU, for instance, has taken the initiative on trade disputes, as with the recent solar panel dumping scandals. One of Professor Zhou’s colleagues, François Godemont, has argued that the EU needs to introduce fair competition for public procurement; in other words, force Chinese firms to demonstrate they do not benefit from soft loan requirements before gaining investment access. Member states, on the other hand, lend themselves to more bountiful cultural dialogue. Chinese find it much easier to relate to the historical heritages of individual nation-states. Exchange programs for students and other language learners serve as a cornerstone for friendly cooperation and understanding between China and Europe, and without the bilateral initiatives enacted by individual European governments, EU-China relations would be but a hollow skeleton.

In closing, Professor Zhou noted how the EU itself can hardly mend China’s image problem. Recent survey data suggests that China’s reputation continues to fall, despite increased economic ties that undoubtedly provide needed energy to a sagging financial system. Nonetheless, the relationship between Europe and China is strong, and it will grow rich even as its dynamic nature continues.


The Q&A session began on the subject of how China perceives the US and Europe collectively as the “West,” while many note that their strategic goals are not always aligned. Professor Zhou noted that Europe is consummately the West, as it invented the core of Western ideas, institutions, and structures. Yet those concepts have influenced China as well. After the Chinese abandoned its archaic legal system in 1911, its first replacement was a translation of the German legal code. Granted, China cannot use such imported structures without a digestive process. Still, the ties between China and Europe demonstrate how the East-West boundary does not resonate with much historical evidence.

Several questions highlighted Europe’s shift east, not only in terms of newly admitted countries in the EU, but also capital flows and developing markets. Iceland and China have recently signed a free trade agreement, and Switzerland has also been trying to finalize such a treaty as well. In the end, argued Professor Zhou, Chinese people want to see Europe succeed. But markets may fail, and the EU must ensure that there are mechanisms that allow for smoother economic development.

(report by Dillon Powers)