The EU-China summit on 20 September was a swansong for China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and a worthy attempt to deepen not only commercial, but also political and social links. The EU deserves much credit for keeping relations with Beijing relatively stable, overcoming a mutual disillusionment that had emerged prior to the crisis. But the summit airbrushed out the issues that will condition the relationship once China's new leadership is in place next year – and which remain to be addressed.
Every official statement justifiably alluded to the remarkable increase in trade and investment flows between Europe and China in recent years. Dialogue on strategic issues has also started. And the EU has had some success in intensifying the network of technocratic and social links, applying many of the quintessentially European approaches deployed elsewhere in the world.
But this is still not the strategic partnership to which Wen aspired when he assumed effective control of the EU portfolio in 2003, nor to which the EU nominally commits itself.
Understandably, the most contentious trade disputes were deftly kept out of the summit's limelight. But the basic tenets of trade relations need to be resolved; deliberation of these was displaced, rather than resolved, last week. This was most immediately the case in relation to tensions over airline carbon taxes and telecommunications. Nor was there movement on the perennials of the arms embargo or China's bid for market-economy status.
The EU is right to press China to adopt less discriminatory and arbitrary trade and investment rules. But its policies must still be guided by the notion of economic interdependence more than political reciprocity. Extracting benefit in individual sectoral disputes cannot be a sufficient motive to contradict such principles. Threatening a tit-for-tat spiral of restrictive measures would be injudicious at a time when China's slowdown is leading Beijing to contemplate increasing inward investment.
Internal European coherence needs solidifying too. When she visited Beijing prior to the summit, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, appeared to cut across the Commission by suggesting that dialogue, rather than confrontation, was the way to address the issue of China's alleged dumping of solar panel exports. Without unity on commercial questions, EU member states will be even more vulnerable to the shift of power in China's favour.
Tellingly, the absence of human rights from the summit attracted little comment. The cancellation of the summit's press conference may seem an insubstantial anecdote, but it nevertheless reinforced an impression that the EU is willing to do anything not to endanger the flow of Chinese funds and investment deals.
Of course, many protest that such summits need to deal with concrete, immediate disputes and not the ‘abstract' irrelevancies of human rights or grand strategy. But ultra-pragmatism has its limits. Under new leadership, China is likely to grow more assertive, including in areas of traditional EU influence. Strains in the Sino-US relationship will have a strategic bearing on European interests too. The EU has begun to think more strategically towards Asia, but much more needs to be done.
The EU needs to map out how and where it can work with China, but also decide how it supports other states in the region as their concerns over Chinese heavy-handedness intensify. It must back the US pivot towards Asia but without associating itself with anything that smacks of an out-dated notion of ‘containing China'. The EU will not be a major security player in Asia but these questions will increasingly matter for its own interests. Geopolitics is making it necessary for the EU to construct a broader vision for relations with China. The authors work at Fride. Richard Youngs is also a member of the ECRAN network and is currently at the Transatlantic Academy.