Li Xiannan and C. Soames 1975

May 1975: Chinese Vice-Premier Li Xiannian and ECC Commissioner for external affaires Christopher Soames.

These days, the People’s Republic of China and the European Union celebrate the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship. At the age of 40 one might assume that this relationship has indeed ‘grown up’ by now.

But has it, really?

Here are three indicators supporting this view and three against it:

FOR: China established diplomatic relations in 1975 with the – back then – European Economic Community at a time that is commonly dubbed “Eurosclerosis”, with European integration stalling and a Community that was far from establishing a common foreign policy. The move thus underlines the strategic importance for global politics that China has seen in the European integration project from the very beginning, and even during an era that was clearly dominated by only two Cold War superpowers.

AGAINST: Times have changed, notably the old bipolar world has come to an end.
But even if we believe theories of a multipolar configuration, there are still doubts
whether the now much more mature European Union, which even has a face to show
to the world,can be considered one of these “poles” or even an actor in global politics,
with institutional crisis having become a permanent feature and 28 members
attached to their individual prerogatives.

FOR: The trade relationship between China and the EU is still the largest in the world.
For several years now, China is Europe’s No. 2 partner and Europe is China’s No. 1 partner.
Goods and services of over 1 bn EUR per day are exchanged between the two economic giants.
Initiatives such as the new investment treaty and possibly a free trade agreement are
likely to foster EU-China trade further.

AGAINST: If TTIP comes, the US-EU trade relationship may outperform the
Sino-European one. The fact that Europe and China could not even find common ground
in terms of China’s WTO-status (market economy or not) indicates the level of difficulty
to turn negotiations into concrete outcomes. What is more, EU-China relations are still
based on an agreement of 1985 as the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement failed.

FOR: Even if international relations are increasingly dominated by business, investment
and economics, one cannot exclude politics. We’ve come a long way over the last 40 years
in terms of approaching each other politically. Since 1998 China and the EU have held annual summits.
Politicians at all levels from China and all member states and at EU-level constantly meet each other.
Chinese has become a popular language to study and cities such as Beijing and Shanghai,
which host some of the finest universities worldwide, have become attractive destinations
for European exchange students and vice versa.

AGAINST: Notwithstanding the exponential increase of people-to-people exchange,
a recent survey by the EU-Asia Institute at ESSCA School of Management and
Oklahoma University has confirmed the negative perceptions of Europeans towards
China, notably the Chinese government. It is noteworthy that strong trade relations
do not seem to help mitigate the situation: the Germans are among the most skeptical
Europeans vis-à-vis the Chinese.

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