Matured China-EU partnership needs matured bilateral framework

LU Xiankun China Plus Published: 2018-05-03 16:12:44
Share this with Close
Messenger Messenger Pinterest LinkedIn

By LU Xiankun

In July this year, the annual China-EU Summit will be held in Beijing. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this highest-level dialogue between the two sides. In 1998, the statement of the first China-EU summit said that, while the world was undergoing “significant and profound changes… further enhanced dialogue and cooperation will not only serve the fundamental interests of the two sides, but also contributes to world peace, stability and development.” Twenty years later, that judgement is even more relevant as the world faces a growing tendency towards unilateralism and protectionism, including by some major powers. Therefore, the demand for enhanced cooperation with China is needed more than ever. This year is an excellent moment to reflect upon what we have and what is missing from that “long-term stable and constructive partnership oriented towards the 21st century” that was announced 20 years ago. 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (C), European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker co-chair the 19th China-EU leaders' meeting in Brussels, Belgium, June 2, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (C), European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker co-chair the 19th China-EU leaders' meeting in Brussels, Belgium, June 2, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]

Much has changed in this last twenty years. On the plus side, the number of EU member states has grown from 15 to 25, and the EU is an indispensable player in many issues at the global and regional level. Brexit was a blow, but the strength and influence of the EU remains intact. And China has also developed from an impoverished developing country to a global economic power and is increasingly becoming a confident player at international arena. 

On the negative side, the 2008 financial crisis substantially changed the narrative around globalization. And changes in the domestic politics of the United States and some European countries have changed how they engage with the world. These changes have posed serious challenges to global governance and policy for many, including the EU and China. 

The dynamism is also different between China and the EU. Today, over one million U.S. dollars of goods is traded between China and Europe every minute. More than 600 flights are flying between their major cities every week. Over 160 trains carry goods along China-Europe railways every month.  Over seven million people are travelling between the two giants every year. About 16,000 enterprises (2016 statistics) with investment from the EU are operating in China. And the EU is becoming the most attractive destination for the boom in China’s overseas direct investment.

In their response to this dynamic and evolving situation, China and the EU have made efforts to develop their relationship and enhance its institutional framework. In 2001, China and EU agreed to establish a “comprehensive partnership”, which became a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2003. In 2005, the Strategic Dialogue was set up, followed by the High Level Economic and Trade Dialogue in 2008 and the China-Europe High-Level Political Parties Forum in 2010. Dozens of other dialogues have also been established covering subjects including security, human rights, trade, finance, culture, education, environment, energy, information technology, and maritime transport.  

These dialogues are surely a helpful way to constantly review bilateral relations and provide real-time political guidance. However, such fluid dialogue can also sometimes be disruptive because of intervening elements, and fall short of capturing the dynamism of bilateral cooperation and the long-term and stable political guidance the relationship needs. The cancellation of the 2008 summit because of tensions between China and France, which held the EU presidency that year, following Sarkozy’s meeting with a separatist, and summits in recent years that failed to produce the usual joint statements because of long-standing differences on thorny issues, are examples of the problems that can arise. 

Despite all the eye-catching rhetoric, there is no bilateral agreement between China and the EU that can provide comprehensive governance for their bilateral relations. Policy considerations are scattered throughout policy papers, summit joint statements, and various sector-specific agreements. In 2006, Chinese and European leaders agreed to launch negotiations on a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement that would encompass the full scope of their bilateral relationship. From public reports, however, little seems to have been achieved, and it is far from clear when this agreement might be achieved. 

Even on economic and trade cooperation, which is said by leaders on both sides to be one of “the most important drivers” towards an enhanced strategic partnership, the only existing governing agreement is the “Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation” signed in 1985 between China and the European Economic Community. Back in 1985, China was just beginning to open its doors to the outside world, and the European Economic Community had just 10 member states. In 2006, China and the EU announced that they would launch negotiations to update the 1985 Agreement. However, the picture remains similarly unclear as to when a new agreement might be signed. Since 2014, the two economies started negotiations on a bilateral investment agreement, but according to some sources, there is still a long way to go before these negotiations will be concluded.

For years, China and the EU have repeatedly declared to each other their recognition of the other’s important global role, committing to put their bilateral relations “on a commensurate footing” with their relations with other major partners. After 20 years, such commitments remain to be realized and their “comprehensive strategic partnership” set in stone. It is now time to take real action to set up a long-term legal framework to govern bilateral relations, as the first step towards a real strategic partnership. 

This means Beijing and Brussels should expedite their negotiations to sign the new Partnership and Co-operation Agreement, and update the 1985 agreement for economic and trade cooperation. Meanwhile, given the lack of momentum within the multilateral trading system to push forward trade liberalization and investment facilitation, China and the EU should take bold actions to step up their bilateral cooperation for two-way market opening. The bilateral investment agreement negotiations must be concluded as soon as possible, and the EU should seriously consider China’s offer, proposed more than once at the highest level, to start looking at the possibility of a bilateral free trade agreement.  

In numerous bilateral summit statements and policy papers, China and the EU committed to build up a “mature partnership”. Without a mature legal framework, their partnership can only go so far. Put simply, China and the EU have been falling in love for too long – now it’s time to put a ring on the finger. 

(Professor LU Xiankun is former senior trade diplomat of China, and was in charge of China-Eu trade affairs from 1993-2000. He is the Emeritus Professor of University of International Business and Economics and Wuhan University of China. He is also Managing Director of LEDECO Geneva, and Senior Vice President of Shenzhen UEB Technology Co. LTD.)

Related stories

Share this story on


LU Xiankun Professor LU Xiankun is Managing Director of LEDECO Geneva and Associate Partner of IDEAS Centre Geneva. He is Emeritus Professor of China Institute for WTO Studies of the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) and Wuhan University (WHU) of China and visiting professor or senior research fellow of some other universities and think tanks in China and Europe. He also sits in management of some international business associations and companies, including as Senior Vice President of Shenzhen UEB Technology LTD., a leading e-commerce company of China. Previously, Mr. LU was senior official of Chinese Ministry of Commerce and senior diplomat posted in Europe, including in Geneva as Counsellor and Head of Division of the Permanent Mission of China to the WTO and in Brussels as Commercial Secretary of the Permanent Mission of China to the EU. Benjamin Cavender Benjamin Cavender is a Shanghai based consultant with more than 11 years of experience helping companies understand consumer behavior and develop go to market strategies for China. He is a frequent speaker on economic and consumer trends in China and is often featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, and Channel News Asia. Sara Hsu Sara Hsu is an associate professor from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is a regular commentator on Chinese economy. Xu Qinduo Xu Qinduo is CRI's former chief correspondent to Washington DC, the United States. He works as the producer, host and commentator for TODAY, a flagship talk show on current affairs. Mr. Xu contributes regularly to English-language newspapers including Shenzhen Daily and Global Times as well as Chinese-language radio and TV services. Lin Shaowen A radio person, Mr. Lin Shaowen is strongly interested in international relations and Chinese politics. As China is quite often misunderstood in the rest of the world, he feels the need to better present the true picture of the country, the policies and meanings. So he talks a lot and is often seen debating. Then friends find a critical Lin Shaowen criticizing and criticized. George N. Tzogopoulos Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is an expert in media and politics/international relations as well as Chinese affairs. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre International de Européenne (CIFE) and Visiting Lecturer at the European Institute affiliated with it and is teaching international relations at the Department of Law of the Democritus University of Thrace. George is the author of two books: US Foreign Policy in the European Media: Framing the Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism (IB TAURIS) and The Greek Crisis in the Media: Stereotyping in the International Press (Ashgate) as well as the founder of, an institutional partner of CRI Greek. David Morris David Morris is the Pacific Islands Trade and Investment Commissioner in China, a former Australian diplomat and senior political adviser. Harvey Dzodin After a distinguished career in the US government and American media Dr. Harvey Dzodin is now a Beijing-based freelance columnist for several media outlets. While living in Beijing, he has published over 200 columns with an emphasis on arts, culture and the Belt & Road initiative. He is also a sought-after speaker and advisor in China and abroad. He currently serves as Nonresident Research Fellow of the think tank Center for China and Globalization and Senior Advisor of Tsinghua University National Image Research Center specializing in city branding. Dr. Dzodin was a political appointee of President Jimmy Carter and served as lawyer to a presidential commission. Upon the nomination of the White House and the US State Department he served at the United Nations Office in Vienna, Austria. He was Director and Vice President of the ABC Television in New York for more than two decades.