Together Against Themselves

Article published on Jan. 6, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 6, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

For a long time now France and Germany’s economic interests have stood in the way of a common EU Foreign Policy for China. It's a risky business-even for France and Germany themselves.

October 30 marked a pretty successful day in the history of EU Foreign Policy. The Prodi, Berlusconi and Solana troika flew together to Peking for the sixth EU-China summit and shortly after reported success. China would take part in the Galileo programme and Chinese tourists in Europe would benefit from fewer restrictions on travel. The tourism industry will no doubt welcome this latest announcement, as the World Tourism Organisation estimates that the number of Chinese holidaymakers will have increased tenfold by 2020, reaching 120 million year.

If China is choosing to pursue this route, then it's not without support from the EU elite. Relations between these two blocks of power are growing ever more intense and at the moment both sides are enthusiastic in ensuring that their partnership is cemented with a solid political base. On October 13, two weeks before the summit, papers detailing each side’s strategies were published. The Chinese government declared that they wanted to make the EU their most important trading partner; the EU, for its part, wanted to see China playing a greater role in international organisations.

Politics as a product

However, the idea of a common EU Foreign Policy, as set out in these papers, is shaky. It is not just the big EU players, but also the national government leaders who enjoy travelling to China. And their entourage of economic lobbyists caricatures the efforts to lay the foundations for a common EU stance. It is true to say that the EU, in so far as the fixing of a trading framework is concerned, is a suitable instrument to aid the entry of European firms to the market and to create a level playing field. China’s entry to the WTO is a prime example. But the EU can only mark out the playing field, onto which European firms, in particular French and German ones, can then step and play against each other. In more definite terms this concerns the building of underground lines, heating plants, nuclear reactors or telephone exchanges. Thanks to this competition the Chinese government continually finds itself benefiting from preferential rates of tax and credit guarantees. For example the Transrapid line to Shanghai, were it not already funded by German taxes, would almost certainly have French TGVs running along it.

This competition, for all its legitimate and economically vibrant exterior, also conceals political risks. It is up to the Chinese government to bind business agreements to political conditions. In such cases, human rghts is always the first casualty. In 1995 the the EU had already adopted a critical position towards China in the UN Commission on Human Rights. And yet the French government boycotted this position in 1997 because a lucrative Airbus deal was in the pipeline. Spain, Italy, Greece and also Germany followed suit and the EU had to cede its strict stance. As a thank-you gesture the Chinese side declared itself ready to re-open dialogue on human rights, an action which they have less need to fear than a public charge on violation of human rights.

Following on from this, it is France, above all, that has become representative of a purely national policy on China. It is the only European country to negotiate a bilateral strategic agreement. And even if other states are not sabotaging EU Foreign Policy so openly, they are all still following a similar course. The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, visited China for the fifth time between 1st and 4th December and called for a relaxing of the weapons embargo and for the export of Hanover nuclear systems, something that the German economy and the Chinese government would welcome with open arms.

Multilateralism instead of multipolarity

In Paris and Berlin this policy is often decorated with the title ‘multipolarity’. It is true to say that, economically speaking, there is a tripolarity between the USA, the EU and Asia, but geostrategically speaking things are very different. After all, what is the EU interest in the Pacific area? In this region China is stuck in the middle of a hegemonial power struggle which hinges on the looming independence of Taiwan. China will no doubt be grateful for the lifting of the weapons embargo, entry into the Galileo programme and the supply of nuclear technology. But it is questionable if China really wants to become the ambitious world power of the 21st century and, as a result, a ‘strategic partner’ of the EU. Even today China has 200 million unemployed and this figure is set to rise. Experts warn about China’s growth overheating and the financial sector is looking sombre. From a military point of view China will not be able to hold a candle to the USA in the foreseeable future and will therefore not stand up to the USA in the Security Council. How does the EU, with the help of France and Germany, together with China, expect to topple the superiority of the USA?

A better alternative should be put forward: an EU Foreign Policy which lives up to its name. If a unified European position were put forward it would be possible to keep business and politics separate when it comes to China, and the Member States would no longer be played off against each other in the economic sector. At the same time pressure could be put on China to stand up in front of the UN Commission on Human Rights and deliver real admissions on its human rights situation. In brief, instead of following an unstable multipolar concept, the EU would move towards multilateral cooperation with China.

Therefore it is for France and Germany to fundamentally rethink their policy on China, to put national interests to one side and work on a common European strategy. This would benefit their own economies, European Foreign Policy and, not least of all, human rights in China.