An Anatomy of European and American Perspectives on China in the International System

Reuben Wong. Europe and China. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press, 2012.


Are EU relations with China still a “secondary relationship”? It has been argued that prior to 1992, Beijing’s relations with Eastern and Western Europe were a function of Beijing’s relations with Washington and Moscow, and that after 1992 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s relations with European states were demonstrating “growing independent dynamics” (Shambaugh et al., 1996: 3). Similarly, Europe’s post-war relations with China were dependent on Washington and Moscow. In essence, the relationship between the EU and China was “derivative” of the primary relationships each had with the US and USSR (Shambaugh et al., 1996; Yahuda, 1994). From 1995 and with the European Commission (EC) putting out its first policy paper on China, however, it seemed as if a page had been turned and that the EU was beginning to engage China on its own terms, independent of Washington’s preferences.

In 2004, Shambaugh (Shambaugh et al., 2004) suggested that the EU and China were coming out from under the influence of the US and were beginning to form a strategic partnership, a new “axis” in international relations. Later, he noted that the “honeymoon” phase of EU-China relations was over and that the relationship was moving into a “marriage” phase, with all the attendant problems, compromises, and tensions that a more mature relationship entailed (Shambaugh et al., 2008: 305-315).

This chapter argues that EU-China relations are still largely derivative of relations each has with the US. In addition, informed European opinion differs markedly from its American counterpart in its appreciation of China. By carefully studying the insights and biases offered by five perspectives or lenses—international political economy, globalization, balance-of-power, strategic studies, and human rights perspectives—and importantly, understanding the theoretical, cultural, or political biases of the scholars who study and “theorize” China’s rise and development through one or more of these lenses, this chapter attempts to ascertain and make generalizations about trends and patterns in the appreciation(s) on each side of the Atlantic towards China.

An anatomy of the prominent arguments made within each lens, and who these arguments are made by, may well help us understand the underlying motivations and assumptions. As Cox (1981: 87) reminds us, theory is always for someone and for some purpose. Theory derives from a specific perspective in time and space, specifically social and political time and space. It is therefore valuable to reflect on the social and political contexts in which theory (or perspectives) on China are produced and used. We can then better appreciate whether the aim of the user is to maintain the existing social order or understanding of China, or to change it. This chapter is an attempt at taking tentative baby steps towards this goal, focusing on the major American and European informed opinion (scholars, policy-makers, and think tanks) before and since 1995 (the high-water mark of the “China threat” thesis) on China’s rise, as well as those on the EU-China and US-China relationships.

Each of the five perspectives surveyed below focuses on a particular area of interaction between the three actors, and each has its inherent biases and shortcomings. The first two lenses are economic and focus on the absorption of China into global capitalist trading, investment, and financial structures, and helping China learn and act within the existing rules of the game.

The third and fourth lenses focus on political and strategic issues, specifically dealing with China’s growing political and military power. While European (especially French) approaches generally advocate accepting China as a rising power as the newest pole in a multipolar world, American approaches tend to be wary of China, seeing China as a threat to American dominance of global structures. The third and fourth perspectives are thus the most conservative and system-preserving of the lot.

In contrast, the human rights approaches focus on China’s internal developments, and here the EU addresses China’s internal human rights record while the US has worried more about China’s external rise.

Political Economy

The political economy account is fundamentally a liberal account of China’s economic rise. This perspective is marked by an eagerness to induct China into the existing rules of the game in international commerce, manufacturing, finance, and investment, and the expectation that China would become a satisfied, status-quo power if it participates and is given responsibility and a stake in an increasingly interdependent global economy (Hutton, 2006; Yahuda, 1997; Zakaria, 2008).

As the dominant lens used to explain relations between the US, Europe, and China, the political economy perspective portrays the three actors as the most important actors and “poles” in the world economy. From the beginning of the 1990s, international political economy (IPE) perspectives cast the relationship between the US, the EU, and China as an increasingly tripolar condominium. The three protagonists (often, the US is portrayed as declining, and China, the fast-rising new actor) are seen as dominating global governance in decision-making and norm-producing fora such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Bretton Woods institutions, and ad hoc groupings (such as the G20) which meet to discuss and coordinate steps to resolve international trade and finance issues as they arise (see Khanna, 2008; Smith and Xie, 2009).

Here, studies of both EU-China and US-China relations are dominated by analyses which posit that the driving forces are essentially economic motives (Dent, 1999; European Commission, 1995; Kapur, 1990). The economic explanations portray China as a vast economic opportunity, a potential market of over one billion consumers, and the largest holder of US Treasury bonds. China is not only a colossal market for Western goods and services, and the world’s manufacturing factory, it also redeploys its trade surpluses into buying American (mainly) and European sovereign bonds. The idea of an economic “triad” is thus considered as a distinct and welcome prospect in the management of global financial issues and problems, especially following China’s entry into the WTO in 2000, and US economic woes in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis starting in 2007 (Wong, 2009).

IPE perspectives focus on China’s rapidly increasing importance in international manufacturing, trade, and finance, and are preoccupied with questions about how to integrate post-Mao China into the global capitalist system. They particularly informed the EC’s trade policies towards China in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, the Community’s decision to include China in a preferential agreement with effect from January 1, 1980 involved full exemption from customs duty for all industrial goods and for partial exemption for certain processed agricultural products exported to developed countries (Kapur, 1990: 149-150).

The EC-China Joint Committee created by the 1978 bilateral agreement and affirmed in the 1985 EC-China Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) quickly became the most institutionalized component of the EC’s interactions with China. The 1978 agreement was the first trade agreement concluded by the EC with a communist country and it placed China in an advantageous position compared to other communist countries. The cornerstone of the 1978 and 1985 trade agreements was the most-favored nation (MFN) clause. Article 14 in the 1985 TCA reserved the right of the member states to conclude bilateral economic arrangements with China (see Bartke, 1992). In practice, the EC has been the engine in developing various forms of economic cooperation.

From the mid-1990s to about 2005, the EC emphasized commerce with China over political or strategic relations. In July 1995, European Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan unveiled the EU’s new initiative, A Long-Term Policy for China. The 1995 China strategy paper followed on the EC’s 1994 Towards a New Asia Strategy initiative but placed even more attention on China as a “cornerstone in the EU’s external relations, both with Asia and globally.” The 1995 paper recognized the “rise of China as unmatched amongst national experiences since the Second World War” (European Commission, 1995; Shambaugh et al., 1996). The two papers, drafted by the EC and approved by the Council, followed roughly similar positions taken by Germany and Britain. They both emphasized economic relations and looked upon China as a “cornerstone” of the EU’s New Asia Policy (Yahuda and Zhang, 1998: 194).

Since 2006, however, the EC has been less sanguine about China and more interested in other issues apart from promoting trade with China. It has started to criticize political and human rights conditions in China (European Commission, 2006). A more in-depth discussion of these changes appears in the last section of this chapter.

From the US perspective, normal trade with China began only with the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. But it grew rapidly with the granting of MFN status by President Jimmy Carter and continued under the Reagan and Bush Sr administrations despite the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. As trade ballooned with the trade surplus quickly moving in China’s favor, bilateral trading relations became firmly politicized by 1993 when President Clinton declared that the annual renewal of China’s MFN status would be conditioned on its human rights record. This set the stage for intense annual diplomatic and media attention in horse-trading between Congress and the White House over the China policy of the US (Foot, 2000; Lampton, 2001; Ross, 1998).

In 2000, near the end of the Clinton presidency, Congress finally acknowledged China’s emergence as a major economic power by granting “permanent, normal trade relations” to China (Schaller, 2002: 209). By then, China was on the verge of overtaking Japan as America’s second largest trading partner (behind the EU) after less than two decades of normalized trading relations.

The rapid increase in trade, economic linkages, and the growing trade surplus that China enjoys has not only resulted in trade disputes with China, but also unrealistic expectations in some quarters in the US that China and the US could form a “G-2” to manage global economic affairs. Henry Kissinger called for the US-China relationship to be taken to a new level, while Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated that the “G-2” could tackle issues from the international financial crisis, to climate change, limiting weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps even help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Economy and Segal, 2009: 14). Unlike previous US administrations, the Obama administration is credited with much speed in defining its China policy; “it took just one month for the US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team to establish its line on China: more cooperation on more issues more often” (Economy and Segal, 2009: 14).


The globalization perspective tends to explain each bilateral relationship with China as an essentially economic one that hinges on mutual economic benefits as each side copes with globalization (Hamilton and Quilan, 2008: 41-54; also Dent, 1999;). This perspective is differentiated from the IPE perspective by the recognition that no single state can control globalization—the process which brings people, goods, finance, and events into one increasingly integrated global space, so that all are highly interdependent, and thus, all are vulnerable to events and decisions made by other actors in the world (Hamilton and Quinlan, 2008: 3-5).

This is the perspective in which European and American views on China are most consonant. When globalization refers to an economic process, there is an even greater convergence of views that states share similar interests in combating criminal transborder networks that control the trafficking of illegal arms, drugs, intellectual property, people, and money—what Moisès Naím calls the “five wars of globalization” (Nairn, 2003).

Some writers view China as especially adept at riding on the benefits of globalization. Its growth then becomes an economic challenge for Western states coping with a flood of low-cost Chinese imports, counterfeit goods, or economic refugees (Domenach, 1990: 175; Chol, 2002; Naím, 2003). Others view China’s economic rise and integration into the global economy more positively, arguing that China’s growth is good for the wider world, and has lifted millions out of poverty at a rate unimaginable before (Friedman, 2005; Khanna, 2008). The picture of the US as being a colossus at the hub of four kinds of globalization—military, economic, social, and environmental—is also challenged by Joseph Nye (2002: 76), who describes the spread of economic and technological capabilities among rising centers of interdependence (notably China as a major rising economic, military, internet, and environmental actor) as resulting in a reduction of “the extent of US dominance.”

The globalization perspective is not only predominant among American and European observers writing for a mass audience; it is often shared by many Asian scholars and political commentators whose own countries have direct and often even more intense experiences dealing with an economically resurgent China (see Mahbubani, 2008).

Balance of Power

We turn now to the geostrategic perspectives of EU-China and US-China relations, a perspective overwhelmingly dominated by American realists who see China as a military threat to the US, and whose rise needs to be slowed down, if not contained (see Bernstein and Munro, 1997; Mearsheimer, 2001; also Sutter, 2006). The idea of a global “triad” is much less pervasive here than in the first two perspectives which are more cognizant, and accepting, of Chinese economic power.

The American perception of the “China threat” began in the early 1990s and reached its peak in 1995-1996. The first wave began with Munro’s (1992) Awakening Dragon. Samuel Huntington (1993) contributed to this debate by suggesting the potential of a Confucianist-Islamist axis to challenge Western dominance. Then the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis triggered off the second wave of American alarmist publications (see Bernstein and Munro, 1997). This has never disappeared.

Within the geostrategic school, one influential thesis sees balance-of-power maneuvering as essential to keeping the system stable. This perspective goes back to at least the Cold War and gives center stage to the US, portraying it as the Cold Warrior leader of the free world and the mid-wife to European integration and Asian bilateralisms in a global effort to stem Soviet expansionism (Peterson, 1996; Yahuda, 1996).

With the Sino-Soviet split and US-China rapprochement of the 1970s, this stance portrays the US as the linchpin of a united US/Europe/Chinese front in confronting and resisting Soviet aggression in Afghanistan and Cambodia. The EU-China relationship was thus framed in the Cold War context of common cause against the USSR (Cabestan, 1995).

In the post-Cold War period of the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century, however, such geostrategic analyses have tended to focus on the “China threat”: China as a rapidly rising power and challenger to US hegemony, and the role of the Europeans in responding to a power shift. Some analyses (principally by French or Chinese scholars and governments) have privileged the idea of the EU and China as alternative poles to a unilateral America (Chinese Foreign Ministry, 2003; French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003; Védrine, 2001).

One of the biggest hurdles to understanding Chinese foreign policy—recognized by China observers and Chinese scholars themselves—is that “few subjects are more complicated—and mysterious than Chinese foreign policy . . . so far there has been little consensus and much frustration in this field of study, to say nothing of the failure to bring it into the mainstream of theoretical inquiry” (Hao, 1998: 510).

Yang Jian argues that the perceptual approach, which studies Chinese foreign policy by focusing on “perceptions held by Chinese foreign policymakers, specialists, and scholars at different levels,” is helpful today because of China’s post-Mao expansion in international relations education and research; China’s opening to the outside world; and the cognitive/decision-making approach being integrated into the field of Chinese foreign policy (Yang, 2009).

It comes as no surprise but is perhaps telling of American preoccupations that the most received analyses of China’s rise and its foreign policy implications for the United States have focused on the “challenges,” “threat,” or potentially hostile intentions of China to US interests in Asia and beyond (see Christensen, 1996).

Meanwhile, European perspectives of the rise of China as a “threat” have been far less alarmist (Cabestan, 1995; 2008; Peyrefitte, 1996; Stares and Régaud, 1998; Védrine, 2001). The prime reason given for this is that China is too far away, and Europe has no strategic flashpoints with China (such as over Taiwan) which could conceivably drag it into a potential conflict with China.

Strategic Studies

Strategic studies, in particular, studies of the military prowess, arms procurements, and strategic cooperation and competition between the US, China, and Europe, have tended to focus after 1989 on the “China threat” posed by a rising China with a supposedly anti-status quo, irredentist mentality, and an increasing military capability which challenges US hegemony.

Many US scholars and policy analysts started to paint China as a new post-Soviet threat to the US. It was the hostile “other” because of its non-democratic communist government, its brutal suppression and massacre of demonstrators on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 (as well as violent police actions against Tibetan demonstrators), and its military modernization and saber-rattling against US allies in the Asia Pacific—most notably the repeated opposition to Taiwanese independence in 1994-95 and 2004 which resulted in the activation of the US seventh fleet in the Taiwan Straits.

Early in his first term, President George W. Bush had identified China as a “strategic rival” to the US. The Bush administration’s first major diplomatic crisis presented itself in the form of a US spy plane crash-landing and being held on Chinese territory in April 2001. The escalating US-China strategic rivalry was ultimately overshadowed by the attacks of September 11, 2001 which prompted both parties to cooperate in the war against Islamic extremism and terrorism instead.

Scholars have noted that the US was rather oblivious to the “remarkable scope and nature of China-Europe ties and their implications for US political, diplomatic, and economic interests for the years ahead” (Gill, 2008: 270). China and France under President Jacques Chirac had since at least 1997 talked about the ideal of a multipolar world in which the EU and China would contribute to global stability (see Wong, 2006: 85-87). But only towards 2004-05 did American attention turn on the growing strategic potential of the China-EU relationship, a shift catalyzed by a single event: the impending lifting of the EU arms embargo, led by France under Chirac and Germany under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Some analyses were even suggesting that the EU and China were moving towards a relationship that could form a “new axis” in international relations. Reflecting the early optimism regarding the EU-China “strategic partnership,” David Shambaugh reckoned that an “emerging axis” in world affairs was forming. He suggested that this could be based on three pillars: engaging China through multilateral institutions that enhance its participation in international affairs; intensifying bilateral Sino-European ties; and improving China’s “domestic capacity” to govern (Shambaugh et al., 2004).

The EU had entered into strategic linkages with China (especially in aerospace cooperation projects) in 2003—coincidentally the year in which China became the third nation to send a man into space. A joint Sino-European satellite navigation cooperation center was opened in Beijing in February, and an agreement was reached in September 2003 committing China to finance up to €230 million or one-fifth of Galileo, the EU’s €1.1 billion satellite-positioning system which is seen as an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (BBC News, 2003; Casarini, 2008; European Commission, 2003; Le Monde, 2003a). The announcement of the decision made a positive prelude to the sixth EU-China summit the following month in Beijing, although human rights, market access, and the EU’s growing trade deficit with China continued to be niggling issues (Le Monde, 2003b). Evidence that China began to take the EU seriously as an actor could be found in the publication of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s first ever EU Policy Paper in October 2003. The paper noted that the EU was an important international player in the trend towards multipolarity, and that the Euro and the EU’s expansion to 25 members in 2004 served to augment the EU’s weight in international affairs. Although there were “twists and turns” in China’s relations with the EU, neither was a security threat to the other, but shared fundamentally similar views and interests on trade and world order (Chinese Foreign Ministry, 2003).

In this EU policy paper, China formally broached the question of ending the arms embargo. The final paragraph of this document called on the EU to “lift its ban on arms sales to China at an early date so as to remove barriers to greater bilateral cooperation on defense industry and technologies” (Chinese Foreign Ministry, 2003). Over the following year, a series of statements by EU leaders announcing their support for lifting the ban were made, most vocally by Schröder and Chirac. Europe took a major step toward meeting Beijing’s request in December 2004 at the seventh EU-China summit, with the EU committing to work towards lifting the embargo.

Then the Council of the European Union approved a joint statement and called on the EU presidency to “finalize the well-advanced work in order to allow for a decision [on the embargo]” and “underlined that the result of any decision should not be an increase of arms exports from EU member states to China, neither in quantitative nor qualitative terms” (Griffin and Pantucci, 2007). The Council further stressed that the EU should move to adopt a revised Code of Conduct on arms exports and a new instrument on exports to post-embargo countries, known as the “Toolbox.”

While on a state visit to Beijing in October 2004, Chirac declared that he would personally strive to end the embargo. The EU found itself under a lot of pressure in 2004-05 from the US when Paris and Berlin prematurely announced that the EU arms embargo on China—in place since 1989—would soon be lifted. Although the US sells more weapons to China than the €416 million worth by all the EU members states combined (2003 figure), the EU’s response on this issue was portrayed as a test of loyalty by Washington. The resulting internal dissension within the EU has since scuttled the lifting of the embargo, and instead intensified US-EU joint consultations and intelligence sharing on China (Barysch et al., 2005; Godement, 2005; Gompert et al., 2005).

The commercial advantages of lifting the embargo to European arms manufacturers are quite evident. China is a key player in the lucrative East Asia arms market—the only region that registered growth during the global contraction in the industry after 1989. Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea alone represent 82% of the region’s arms market (SIPRI, 2002). The major European arms manufacturers (based in Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden) have been active in this competitive market and have offered themselves as serious alternatives to the US and Russia as arms suppliers. Yet the last large-scale arms deal involving an EU state and an East Asian one was almost 20 years ago: the sale of six French Lafayette frigates to Taiwan in 1990, and Taipei’s 1992 purchase of sixty Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets (Beijing Review, 2000; Wong, 2006: 30-34).

Increased arms sales to China would also help the political dialogue and make the EU-China dialogue more of a “strategic one,” as both sides had announced at the EU-China summit in 2004 (Barysch et al., 2005). Despite the Council’s intention to strengthen the Code of Conduct, there were indications in early 2005 that Paris had entered into talks with Beijing on the sale of advanced Mirage 2000-9CS fighter aircraft.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Europe in February 2005 to begin patching over the damage from the Iraq War, but the issue of the US response to Europe’s pending decision to lift its arms embargo threatened to overshadow her talks with EU leaders. Although Rice claimed that she had productive talks on the matter with her European counterparts, the US Congress was less restrained. Critics blasted Europe for selling out the alliance in order to cut deals in Beijing, and legislators such as Senator Richard Lugar threatened to cut transatlantic defense-industrial cooperation if Europe lifted the embargo. In the face of such acrimony from the US and growing domestic criticism, Brussels backed down, but the issue is not dead.

The first visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to China in May 2006 looked set to continue her predecessor’s cozy relations with China and pay lip service to human rights, although she distanced herself from Schröder’s controversial attempt to lift the China arms embargo (Eyal, 2006). The clearest indication that the embargo is still in play is that Europe’s leaders say so. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attended the ninth EU-China Summit in September 2006, he received a pledge that Europe would continue efforts toward lifting the embargo. One month later, Chirac declared his continued opposition to the embargo in a joint communiqué with President Hu Jintao: “The moment has come for the EU to make the most of the expanding partnership between the EU and China, most notably by lifting the arms embargo which is no longer pertinent to the present situation” (Griffin and Pantucci, 2007).

The EU and the US share liberal-democratic values and have a joint interest in shaping China’s transition as it grows as a world economic and military power (Gompert et al., 2005; Smith and Steffenson, 2005). However, their views increasingly diverged over the Bush administration (2001-08), over the utility and efficacy of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the unilateral use of force versus negotiations and diplomacy, and dealing with terrorism and “rogue states” such as Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. The EU has distinct political, economic, and even nascent security interests in China, and is likely to exploit them in the event of tensions between the US and China.

The ongoing arms embargo controversy points to a deeper transatlantic tension: Washington fears that Europe will be an irresponsible actor in Asia, while Brussels suspects that Washington will not accept any European role at all. Washington and Europe have vastly different interests in Asia both in terms of scope and scale. And the rapid growth of Sino-European ties indicates that those interests will continue to diverge in the absence of a strong countervailing effort (Godement, 2004; Gompert et al., 2005). At root is America’s inability to accept the idea of closer strategic relations between its supposed allies (EU) and a potential adversary (China).

For the US, the inherent tensions of China as a strategic partner or competitor have come up early under the Obama administration. In March 2009, a US Navy surveillance ship was surrounded by five Chinese vessels near a Chinese submarine base in Hainan; meanwhile the same Chinese navy supports US-led anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden (where both China and the US depend on the same shipping lanes).

Human Rights

Both American and European polities have pressure groups which lobby either their own governments, the Chinese government, or launch media campaigns pushing for the promotion of human rights (political, civil, legal, cultural, economic) in China. The focal event for both Americans and Europeans was the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which galvanized human rights groups on both sides of the Atlantic. While the European early on imposed sanctions (including a ban on high-level contacts) on China, the US under President Bush Sr. decided to maintain talks.

Human rights can be considered a special component of the EU-China political dialogue. It has been a major theme of EU-China relations only since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989. Until the end of the Cold War, and apart from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, few member states made human rights a major plank in their relations with China (Foot, 2000: 48; Wong, 2006: 47). Tiananmen politicized the European Community approach to economic relations with China. For example, the EC which had hitherto refrained from political comments, issued a statement expressing “consternation” and “shock” at the “brutal suppression” in Beijing, and cancelled Foreign Trade Minister Zheng Tuobin’s scheduled visit to Brussels (Shambaugh et al., 1996: 11). The introduction of sanctions, human rights, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) issues in EC-China relations shifted much of the discussions on China to the Council and Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP) structures.

Between 1989 and 1996, the EU and the US basically cooperated to pressure China on human rights and to highlight its shortcomings at the UNCHR each year. During this period, the EU policy on human rights in China lay principally in: 1) the sanctions policy (effectively lifted in October 1990), 2) dialogue between individual EU governments and China, and 3) holding China accountable in multilateral fora, in particular the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) by annually co-sponsoring with the US a resolution criticizing China’s human rights record. Some human rights activists consider this the most “symbolically important” EU policy in monitoring and moderating human rights in China (Baker, 2002; Human Rights in China, 1998). The EC-12 held together in supporting most of these sanctions from June 1989 to October 1990, the date when most of the sanctions were lifted (except the ban on military sales). The UNCHR approach was adhered to each year from 1990 to 1996 (except 1991 when the US, Britain, and France sought China’s vote in the Security Council to endorse allied action against Iraq in the Gulf War). Although the resolution was always defeated by a no-action motion (except in 1995), the move was politically symbolic and significant in underlining the EU’s commitment each spring to improvements in China’s human rights record.

The British, conscious that their influence in the Asian region since their military pullout from Singapore in 1971 could never be more than marginal, have found it prudent after the handover of Hong Kong to “soft-pedal their interest in human rights and democratic principles” in order to maintain a working relationship with China (Martin and Garnett, 1997: 38). The French, under the socialist president François Mitterrand, initially took a high-profile principled position on human rights after Tiananmen, but piped down considerably after the Beijing-Paris spat over Taiwan arms sales.

Under Chirac, Paris made a dramatic volte-face shielding China’s human rights record from EU and international scrutiny (notably at the 1997 UNCHR in Geneva). The new French position was brought to bear at the 53rd UNCHR debate in April 1997 in Geneva. Unable to persuade its EU partners and the Dutch EU Presidency to drop the resolution criticizing China, France decided to withdraw its support from the ritual EU sponsorship of the resolution. France led the “Airbus group” (France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) in defecting from the common position. It was left to Denmark to draft the resolution, and the US and 14 other Western countries to co-sponsor it. With the split in EU ranks, the vote was 27 in favor of China’s no-action motion, 17 against and 9 abstentions, the most stunning repudiation of the UNCHR mechanism condemning China since the campaign started in 1990 (Beijing Review, 1997b). The UNCHR debacle was celebrated as a spectacular victory by Chinese diplomacy. Meanwhile France was heavily criticized by many Western governments for “kowtowing to Chinese pressure,” putting short-term national economic interests over collective long-term EU interests and hence undermining the EU’s credibility and its own credentials as the birthplace of human rights (Wong, 2006: 95). The stage was then set for Chirac’s state visit to China in May 1997, where a France-China joint declaration was issued. On human rights, it declared that both parties would “respect diversity” and take into account the “particularities of all sides” (Beijing Review, 1997a; French Foreign Ministry, 1997).

After the French-led defection in 1997, a new European approach to human rights in China was decided by the General Affairs Council (GAC) and codified in the EC’s March 1998 strategy paper Building a Comprehensive Partnership with China. The 14 March 1998 GAC agreed that at the upcoming 1998 UNCHR session, the EU would “neither propose nor endorse, either by the organization as a whole or by individual members” any resolution criticizing China (Beijing Review, 1997c). In effect, the French position had won the day and the “hardliners” found themselves tied to an EU position projected by France. This Europeanized position not to co-sponsor (albeit with reservations expressed by the “hardliners”) the UNCHR resolution with the US has been reached at the Council each March since 1998. The Council has typically agreed that the EU should adopt the following approach at the UNCHR on China (Council of the EU, 2001a; 2001b):

If the resolution is put to a vote, EU members of the Commission will vote in favour, but the EU will not co-sponsor; EU members will vote against a no-action motion, should one be presented, and the EU will actively encourage other Commission members to do likewise, since in the EU’s view, the very notion of no-action is itself contrary to the spirit of dialogue (Wong, 2006: 96).

Pressured by the pragmatic positions taken by Germany and France, most of the EU member states and the EC had towards the end of the 1990s toned down their critiques of the Chinese government towards a coordinated but weak common position of “constructive dialogue.” Aside from common actions taken under the CFSP and coordinated by the EC, individual governments regularly raise human rights concerns in their discussions with Chinese leaders. For example, German statesmen continue to voice at the UNCHR and other fora concerns over human rights abuses in China. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer mentioned China at the UNCHR in 1999 and 2002. The German federal government and the Bundestag have also repeatedly called upon the Chinese government to enter into a dialogue with the Dalai Lama with a view to granting Tibet substantial autonomy, and to end the suppression of Tibetan culture and religion (Auswärtiges Amt, 2002: 6).

Of course, considerable variations are seen between EU member states, and between EU institutions. The European Parliament (EP) has always taken a more principled stand, while the EC, the member states, and Council traditionally adopts a pragmatic, almost “mercantilist” position on human rights in China (see Baker, 2002; Fox and Godement, 2009; Wong, 2006; 2008).

In practice, the leading actor within the EU in promoting human rights in China has been the EP. It has since 1987 made regular and public criticisms of the Chinese human rights record, especially on Tibet, arbitrary detention, capital punishment, religious, and political freedoms. The GAC in May 1999 supported the EP’s 1994 initiative to streamline a series of budget headings under a single chapter of the EU budget (B7-70) in the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). The EP’s budgetary power over the EIDHR gives it added oversight of the Community’s external relations. The EP thus holds the EC and GAC accountable for developments “on the ground” for the continuation of the EU-China dialogue (European Commission, 2001b; Council of the European Union, 2002: 131; 1999: 24-25).

Aside from its powers over external assistance, the EP has leveraged on the political prestige and international publicity it can confer on foreign personalities embodying human rights struggles. The EP infuriated the Chinese in 1996 when it awarded Wei Jingsheng—then China’s most celebrated dissident—the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (Nathan, 1999: 155). Then it invited the Dalai Lama to address a session in Strasbourg in October 2001. In the end, a combination of the hard EP and Nordic governments’ unilateral approaches combined with the conciliatory EU approach of “constructive dialogue” pioneered by France and Germany could be viewed as a way of engaging China through a mixture of negative measures and positive incentives (Alston, 1999: 578-580).

European scholars, thinks tanks, and sinologists have tended to be critical of their governments’ and the EC’s justifications for “silent diplomacy,” “change through trade,” and “constructive engagement” instead of overtly taking China to task on human rights violations (Baker, 2002; Domenach, 1990).

In 2006, however, a serious change of tune emanated from the EC, and European civil society actors are once again pressuring for a review of China’s human rights situation (European Commission, 2006; Fox and Godement, 2009).

Beijing and Europe have not come much closer to better understanding each other’s sensitivities—surely a condition of a “strategic partnership.” Beijing has exhibited a persistent prickliness to European interference in China’s human rights record, especially with regards to the situation in Tibet. It took offence at the perceived failures of French and British authorities to protect the Olympic torch relay from being heckled in Paris and London in the spring of 2008 and postponed the 11th EU-China summit because French President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama in Poland in December 2008 (BBC News, 2008; China Daily, 2008).

Some have considered the dialogue with China “the most complex and multifaceted dialogue on human rights” which the EU has with any country (Patten, 2001). Although the EU has established an important human rights dialogue with China, it has suffered from conflicting interests and coordination problems between the GAC, the member states, the EC, and the EP (European Commission, 2001a: 11). As the shock of Tiananmen faded away, the GAC and larger member states have tended to pay lip service to human rights in order to cultivate good political and economic relations with Beijing.


Taken together, these perspectives tell us a few things about American and European approaches towards China. First, Europe’s self-image as a “civilian” or “normative” power is focused on a vision of building a multilateral rule-based world order in which the EU’s strengths in diplomacy, development assistance, and multilateral institutions can be used to advantage (Gompert et al., 2005; Kagan, 2002; Lindberg, 2005; Manners, 2002). In the case of China, this means engaging and enmeshing China in as many multilateral cooperative institutions as possible, and eschewing any policy aimed at “containing” or retarding China’s rise.

Second, the US as the current hegemon in the international system is determined to defend its position, especially in relation to potential challengers such as China and the EU (Brzezinski, 2000). The EU views its arms embargo on China (imposed in 1989) as an anachronistic obstacle that prevents European military industries from competing with Russia and the US in the potentially lucrative Chinese arms market while the US sees European defense technology in Chinese hands as a critical threat to its own security (Gompert et al., 2005; Sturm, 2004).

From Beijing’s perspective, the US, “both positively and negatively,” has been at the center of China’s foreign policy concerns since 1949 (Foot, 1995: 13). Despite attempts by Western Europe (both individually and as a group) to upgrade ties with Beijing, Europe had remained a “secondary” political and strategic partner to China when compared to the US. China has been using the EU as a counter-weight to the US, in areas as diverse as trade, human rights, and aerospace (Wong, 2006).

Third, Europe is not bound by alliance commitments to East Asian states. Unlike the US, it does not have security alliances with Japan or Taiwan.4 It is therefore not obligated to intervene on Washington’s side in the event of conflict in the Asia-Pacific. While Europe certainly has important security interests in the Asia-Pacific and has even played or is currently playing a peace-keeping role in Asian flashpoints such as Cambodia, East Timor, and Aceh, it does not have substantial military assets based in the region (Stares and Régaud, 1998). From a strategic perspective, the 1989-92 sale of French frigates and sixty Mirage fighter jets to Taiwan increased France’s profile and stake in one of the most volatile security flash-points in East Asia (Shambaugh et al., 1996: 20-21), but the French have in recent years been at pains to discourage Taiwanese independence and to stress that Europe would not support Taipei if it precipitated conflict with China (Wong, 2006: 100).

Fourth, there is little human rights interest in China and no strong pro-Taiwan lobby in Europe. The EP’s award to Wei Jingsheng and then invitation to the Dalai Lama incensed the Chinese. However, there is no reservoir of sympathy for Taiwan comparable to that found in Washington. In the spring of 2003, the EP’s Liberal, Democrats, and Reform Group attempted to invite Chen Shuibien, Taiwan’s president, to address the EP in Brussels (France had refused to issue a visa for the address at the EP’s building in Strasbourg). However, Belgium caved when the Chinese Embassy threatened that Belgium-Chinese relations could be “set back 10 years” if the Belgian government proceeded to issue the visa to Chen. The decision to refuse the visa was then presented as a veto by the GAC, despite support from the Foreign Ministers of Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark (Wong, 2006: 50). A Sino-European spat over Taiwan along the lines of Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell University in 1995 was thus nipped in the bud, with hardly any domestic ripples in Europe.

From China’s perspective, its ability to exploit differences between the member states, and the European Commission, or between the member states themselves, is increasingly more limited. The year 2006 has been a wake-up call with even the EC calling for tougher measures and higher expectations on China, and France, Britain, and Germany making strong statements about the unrest in Tibet in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Since the US-EU dispute over the lifting of the arms embargo in 2004-05, China’s ability to exploit transatlantic differences has also been reduced with the institution of regular transatlantic dialogue and consultations over China’s rise.