From Client Status to Strategic Partnership: China’s Changing Perceptions of Europe

Li Wang. Europe and China. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States, a few observers suggested that no country could forever remain the primary player in world affairs. The argument went that America’s unipolar moment would inevitably come to an end. But who will be the next leading player? It is likely that before China’s rise is completed, it may well be Europe that plays a more prominent role in world politics. “Europe’s time is almost there. In fact, there are many areas of the current international affairs where the objective conclusion would have to be that Europe is already the superpower, and the United States must follow our lead” (Reid, 2004: 25). If so, how does China perceive Europe, and more precisely the European Union (EU), in view of Beijing’s aspiration for greater influence in world affairs?

It is not an easy job to present a balanced treatment of China’s image of Europe, both for the past and the present. Yet, this chapter aims to analyze modern Europe’s impact on China, which in turn helped to shape China’s perception of Europe. Tracing the profound, but somewhat controversial, impacts of European ideas and institutions on China is necessary as these resulted in the current perceptions of Europe in China. It is also necessary to shed light on the expectations widely held among the Chinese regarding the role played by the EU. Although the physical distance between China and Europe has been shortened thanks to ever improving communication technologies and transportation links, the cultural gulf and the gap in terms of perceptions and cognition of each other remain vast. It will be necessary for policy-makers to work towards bridging this gap if the two sides seek to truly commit themselves to a more stable and enduring relationship.

The Impact of Europe on Modern China

Conventional wisdom goes that between 1500 and 1800, China made greater contributions to Europe than Europe made to China, a time at which Chinese civilization developed to its peak in terms of living standards, urbanization, civil and official examinations, as well as agriculture (see Hudson, 1931: 98; also Needham, 1961: 19). With China dominating the so-called “Sinic world order” and rivaling European states deeply involved in their struggle for sovereignty, neither China nor Europe impinged much upon each other’s geopolitical concerns. Trade served as the main conduit for and substance of their relations, though it was at most irregular and marginal (Yahuda, 2008: 13).

Great thinkers of the Enlightenment in Europe, like Leibniz and Voltaire, were impressed by what they had read about Chinese philosophy and Confucian doctrines. As a philosopher himself, Leibniz even fervently believed that while the Europeans surpassed the Chinese in certain areas, the latter were superior in the adaptation of ethics and politics to practical life. Voltaire admired the Emperor Yong-Zheng as one with “no equal other than among the ancient Romans” (Yahuda, 2008: 16). However, the dominant European view of China of the day resulted from their anxiety for a social order more than their real knowledge of imperial China per se. As a result, when the Europeans encountered Imperial China during their first military clashes—in 1840-42 and then again in 1856-60—they found China to be not only inferior in terms of modern technology but also insolent and obstinate with regard to statecraft. Sadly, the time-honored mentality of the Middle Kingdom had gone.

It is the Europeans who broke down the mentality of Chinese arrogance and ignorance. Consequently, the incursion of European firepower, ideas, institutions, and doctrines into China had a tremendous impact on the ruling elite and the common people of the country. With an ambivalent attitude towards the superiority of Europe, the Chinese began to accept the doctrine of sovereignty in its conduct of diplomacy with a view of winning back an equal status for China in the European-dominated international order. The first significant efforts came with the formal acceptance of resident embassies in Beijing and the creation of a Chinese foreign affairs office in 1861 which was based on a European model. Previously, China had never accorded recognition to any state on an equal diplomatic level, but only on a tributary or trading basis (Hsu, 1983: 267). Now, in exercising European-style diplomacy, the Chinese came to realize the value of advancing their interests abroad. The first Chinese Minister Kuo Sung-tao (郭嵩燾) in London presented to the court that if China wished to be as powerful as the states of Europe, the foremost thing was to “make the Chinese thoroughly familiar with European doctrine and methods.” By the late 19th century, China’s treatment of Europe had already shifted from a policy of exclusion of all the barbarians in the past, to an inclusion of “all useful European tips to serve their practical needs” (Morse, 1918: 231). The efforts of the Chinese to adopt and learn European practices reinforced their skill and legitimacy in dealing with European powers when China found itself in a state of adversity.

The conservative elements in Chinese imperial politics were unwilling to compromise their commitment to age-old values and mores. In defense of those values, they contended that whereas ancient Rome, attacked by alien barbarians, was fragmented into numerous pieces and never regained its earlier glory and power, China had recovered itself time and again from the same grinding tests (Tyau, 1927: 322). These conservatives entertained a similar hope that China could survive the forceful impact of Europe without having to launch any substantial domestic changes. But the progressive group headed by Li Hung-chang (李鴻章) perceived the latest clashes between China and Europe from a more dynamic standpoint. In recognition of the superior power of Europe, those reform-minded officials-scholars argued for the renaissance of a united and strong China by adopting European military technology and diplomatic practice in a thorough manner. Thus, the Chinese tended to invoke Europe as a practical model for securing the ancient empire (Hsu, 1983: 268).

It was during the five decades (1860-1912) of China’s vicissitude internally and externally that the ruling class found the pragmatic value of the balance-of-power, a core concept of European diplomacy which prevailed as both common sense and public law. Since the 17th century, the European states took the balance-of-power as the guiding principle in a pursuit of their foreign policy, which emphasized that no single power should be allowed to lay down the law to all others. The balance of power system aims at preserving the multiplicity of states that have stood approximately in overall equilibrium (Sheehan, 1997: 23).

The doctrine of the balance-of-power came to China as a result of China’s defeat by the foreign powers, and the race among the great European colonial powers for staking out spheres of influence in China at the end of the century added to the urgency of accepting it. Interestingly, one of the reasons the Chinese kept an eye on the balance-of-power politics was that it was quite close to the ancient tactic of “preserving equilibrium among the rivals through maneuver” (縱橫捭闔). Initially, the Chinese failed to grasp the essence of the balance-of-power which, according to the Europeans, meant the co-existence of international actors. By contrast, the Chinese notion was no more than a desperate strategy to cope with the imminent threat. Harold Nicolson once argued that the Europeans held the balance of power as essential to a sound diplomacy rather than temporary one (Nicolson, 1988: 72-74). Only after a further study of European statecraft did the Chinese change their traditional concept. Such progress was furthered when Chinese students were sent to Europe in the late 19th century to learn naval technology and practical know-how. The debates on this issue and its implications have remained until the present in China.

One prominent example of the Chinese understanding of balance-of-power politics was Ma Jian-zhong (馬建忠), then a Chinese diplomat in Paris where he was trained in public European law. He sent home dispatches on the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the 1878 Berlin Conference in which balance-of-power politics was visibly exercised (Ma, 1998: 14-20). Ma was impressed by the Ottoman Empire’s success in preventing its dismemberment at the hands of the European powers. He was critical of the use of force in partitions and annexations in order to maintain the balance-of-power since he viewed this as a case of mistaking the means for the end. He quoted the words of Lord Brougham that “the whole object of the balance of power system is to maintain unimpaired the independence of nations,” an objective which applied as much to small and weak states as to the large and strong ones. For the classical school, the doctrine of the balance-of-power was a guarantor of the independence of all states (Ma, 1998: 36). At the end of the century, when China found itself in the great powers’ scramble, the Chinese remained convinced that the involvement of several powers in China’s political arena was necessary to check the domination by a single power, because a form of equilibrium could emerge from that competitive maneuver (Wang, 1990: 236).

Needless to say, since the late 19th century, it is interesting that many Chinese students pursued public international law as their career, in view of more popular studies of science and technology. Even though China was coming to the verge of its dismemberment in the wake of China’s catastrophic defeat by Japan in 1895, an increasing number of Chinese students showed their willingness to accept public international law as the best means to serve the country. This figured prominently in the claim presented by the Chinese delegates at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference for the recovery of the former German concession in Shangdong, which then had been transferred to Japanese jurisdiction. Chinese delegates, who were mostly trained in the law schools of Europe and the US, staunchly applied the principle of rebus sic stantibus in their negotiations on the issues of sovereign rights and territorial integrity. They stated that China’s independence and territorial integrity ought to be preserved due to the fact that European powers and the US had insisted upon this general principle: equality in trade opportunity and equilibrium in power distributions in an internationally recognized sovereign state like China. This was what the great powers of the day upheld as the “open door policy.” Accordingly, any change would likely be destructive of the equilibrium that symbolized the foreign powers’ vested interests and the existing order in China (Whyte, 1928: 14). The Chinese diplomats obviously came to acknowledge that the open door policy in view of China’s administrative and territorial integrity coincided with their commercial interest and political clout. They thus acted to capitalize on foreign powers’ mutual suspicion and jealousy in order to gain more favorable terms in the negotiations. Indeed, from the conclusion of the Final Protocol in 1901 to the collapse of the imperial monarchy in 1912, China cautiously upheld the open door principle and even tried an open door politics of its own whenever the chance was perceived as possible. Though the imperial order in China had collapsed, the republican government continued to act in accordance with European tenets. The efforts of the new generation of diplomats eventually came to fruition as they elicited the promise of restoring China’s full sovereignty from foreign powers as stipulated in the Nine-Power Treaty at the 1922 Washington Conference (King, 1963: 32).

Here it is important to note that the impact of Europe on modern China was by no means limited to the fields such as European diplomacy, the theory of balance-of-power, and public international law. As the essential goal of China was to become as powerful as the other great powers, students went to Europe in the late 19th century to learn new technologies and other practical skills (Hsu, 1983: 271). It was inevitable for them to take interest in the British, French, and German societies around them, and they realized that the advances of Europeans had deeper social and philosophical mainsprings. One of the most renowned returned students, Yan Fu (嚴復), translated into Chinese the key writings of John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith, who then profoundly changed the outlook of new generations in China. Inspired by Yan’s writings, China’s younger generations in the early 20th century came to view the 19th century as a period of “shame and humiliation.” Yan’s translation of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics helped to popularize the idea of social Darwinism, by which the idea of the “survival of the fittest” was equally applied to social groups and nations (Yahuda, 2008: 13). Greatly alarmed by this theory, the Chinese in general and the educated youth in particular feared that at the turn of the century, China might perish due to its own backwardness, divisions, and occupation at the hands of foreign invaders. Having gained faith in European concepts and practices, the Chinese entertained the hope that one day China could be strong and affluent enough to stand up to its adversaries, so as to allow it to assume its rightful place as one of the greatest powers in the world. These ideals, along with China’s legacy of ancient glory and modern humiliation, have remained in one form or another as the bedrock of Chinese aspiration to the present day (Yahuda, 2008: 19). It is undeniable that for better or worse, European ideas and practices remade Chinese thinking, and Western goods and ideologies quickly followed suit. As Raymond Aron (1962: 319) put it, the engagement of China with Europe had awakened the drowsy giant.

China’s Expectations of Europe

The end of World War II marked a turning point in both Chinese and European history. Europe, on the one hand, lost—for the first time in modern history— its dominant position in the world to the US and the Soviet Union. China, on the other hand, though suffering tremendously during the war, emerged as a victorious power. The brief civil war ended with a much stronger central government being established in Beijing by the Chinese communists in 1949. Rooted in European ideology and nationalism, ideals of social equality, and the desire for a strong centralized government geared to national modernization, the new leadership aspired to become the masters of China’s destiny (Whiting, 1960:3). Given the nature of the Cold War, that is a bipolar world order dominated by two superpowers, Beijing looked to post-1945 divided Europe for normalization and recognition in order to break its diplomatic isolation imposed by the US; it also sought to augment the flow of trade for the sake of the domestic needs and for getting more access to advanced technology to ease China’s dependence on the Soviet Union. Yet, despite openings to Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s (notably with France in 1964), Beijing’s efforts did not pay off until the rapprochement between the US and China in 1971-72 (Harding, 1992: vii, 24). Ever since, for the first time since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China managed to establish diplomatic ties with all of Europe, in both the East and the West. In 1975, Beijing formally also exchanged its ambassador with the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the EU.

Initially, these openings were expected to serve China’s strategic needs of lining itself up against the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, China had come to see Europe as one possible ally in opposition to any bid for Soviet hegemony. However, it turned out that in practical terms, China and Europe were geographically too distant from each other to be able to exert significant influence over each other’s strategic goals (Yahuda, 2008: 25). The image of the world perceived by the Chinese came from domestic politics rather than a practical assessment of European intentions. Ironically, the very distance between the two sides also proved to be a positive factor that would lead to the free promotion of bilateral trade and the facilitation of agreements on other issues.

Today, in the context of 21st-century global politics, complex global issues need to be addressed by collective efforts. Chinese political and academic elites have frequently stated that China and EU do not confront any severe strategic obstacles, though what constitutes those strategic elements remains very general in their discourse (Feng, 2006: 26). One might argue that since the end of the Cold War, there are three levels in the Chinese expectations of Europe. First, in terms of global governance, a united Europe is expected to play a more positive role in constructing a multilateral world order in which both China and the EU aim to oppose any form of unilateralism. China and some EU states repeatedly argue that they are in favor of “effective multi-lateralism”—which points to the enhancement of the role of the United Nations and the peaceful settlement of international disputes—while the US appears more ready to resort to force whenever it deems necessary. On the one hand, China and the EU share a wide range of common interests in anti-terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the combat of cross-border organized crime, poverty relief, environmental protection, and many other issues. On the other hand, only few Chinese experts believe that the EU regards a rising China more as an opportunity than a challenge. To a certain extent this is true. Beijing has actively strengthened its bilateral strategic partnership with Europe with a view of curbing the US in global affairs. Nevertheless, Beijing has underestimated the dimensions and saliency of transatlantic solidarity. It was argued that the quarrels across the Atlantic Ocean are “more likely to lead to a drifting apart rather than a sharp divorce, just as neither United States nor Europe threaten the vital or important interest of the other side” (Nye, 2002: 35). Some Chinese scholars or former diplomats, like ambassador Ding Yuan-hong, also warned against any forms of wishful thinking. He pointed out the danger of playing the EU card to check the US, given that America and Europe have much more in common than China and Europe do. China is surely aware that the EU remains unwilling to lift its arms embargo against China, mainly due to pressure and even bullying from Washington. If Beijing and Brussels act to challenge Washington (which is very unlikely) on the sensitive issue of the arms embargo, the latter’s retaliation would damage relations between China and the US, and affect the bilateral relations between China and the EU. Neither side wants to run this risk in view of their respective relationships with the US.

Second, with regards to the potential role of the EU in global affairs, some Chinese are still obsessed with the theory of classical realism (Chen, 2002: 4). Taking “old Europe”—characterized by its military might—as their evidence, they have shown little trust in Europe’s ability to project hard power, in particular in relation to military force. To be sure, the multiplicity of the EU member states and its complex multilateral decision-making mechanisms compromise the European resolution and effectiveness in the use of force. The case of Europe’s recent military engagement in Libya is no exception to this. But the problem is that many Chinese analysts clearly overestimate the disunity of the EU, and thus misperceive the nature of its power in an era of globalization, as well as the mission to create ever closer union among the states of Europe. A good answer to this conundrum may be the argument made by former German specialist Christoph Bertram who argued “[t]o make military power the litmus test of European integration is to repeat Stalin’s mistake of judging the Catholic Church by the number of its [military] divisions” (Reid, 2004 188). Bertram was correct in that the Europeans are banking on the belief that “the EU can become a superpower of its own on the world stage without building a military that can match the US might” (Reid, 2004 189).

In effect, European statesmen and technocrats have discussed what sort of EU strategic culture would emerge, if it is necessary, and whether that culture would be amenable to the exercise of military power (Macmillan, 1995: 37). In 1947, Jean Monnet, the most famous advocate of European integration, stated his hope that eventually a “United States of Europe” would become “a civilian great power.” This is not a pretentious discourse in retrospect as so much as an expression of a common European point of view. If we therefore survey the function of a non-fighting political entity like the EU, it is not difficult to conclude that the EU is meant to win its way not on the battlefields, but by corralling more votes than the US in the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and other international agencies. In all these cases, the EU has 27 votes (if it is united) to cast in opposition to America’s single vote. Beyond that, the EU as a whole can claim more allies to add to its built-in vote margin in key international organizations and regimes. In addition, it wins these supporters or allies not by wielding a big stick but by enticement with a carrot—economic and development aid, preferential market access and free trade agreements, cooperation agreements, and, in some parts of Europe, even access to EU membership itself. In a sense, the EU’s commitment to foreign aid contrasts sharply with the America’s persistent need to maintain the strongest military force on the earth. It is primarily due to this that Nye has regrettably admitted “for better or worse, Europe could be America’s equal in power” (Macmillan, 1995: 189; see also Nye, 2002: 31).

The third question is that Chinese scholars, though not many, suggest that the process of European integration might be a mirror of the potential peaceful rise of China. For instance, a Chinese EU expert has argued that the EU’s pragmatic and successful dealings with all the major global players— in its neighborhood, with the old and newly emerging great powers alike, as well as within international institutions—should be carefully studied. If China wants its peaceful rise to be accepted by the international community (and especially by its neighbors) it might make sense to learn from the EU experience (Song, 2004). However, this line of thought is based on a misunderstanding of the basis of the current world order. For better or worse, the EU and the ongoing integration process among its member states were in essence erected on modern European concepts and practices. Therefore, there is no need for the EU to adapt to it. For this reason, the EU was, is, and will be the status quo power rather than one seeking to disturb it. Actually, what China can and needs to learn most from the European countries in practical terms are their domestic governance arrangements and their social welfare policies.

Due to this, it is necessary to turn the discussion to the interesting pattern of “symmetries and asymmetries,” as used by Zhou Hong, a Chinese Europe analyst at the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences. She argues that “in terms of economic society, political systems and historical cultures,” the EU and China were in effect much more different than similar (asymmetries), but the two sides’ tangible commons and mutual cooperation on global and regional issues (symmetries) justified the pattern of their understanding (Shambaugh, 2008: 135). In light of this analysis, one needs to explore the thorny issues between China and the EU. There is no need to argue that strong and healthy relations between the EU and China are essential to global stability and peace, an interest both sides clearly share. Constant European criticism of China’s human and religious rights (the Tibetan issue included), however, could shake the confidence each has in the other. While the Chinese government praised EU member states for stopping the condemnation of China in the UN Human Rights Commission in 1998, ending so-called “human rights diplomacy,” the Chinese in general are still sensitive to criticism by the individual states, NGOs, the media, and national parliaments in Europe. Some Chinese analysts and young students in particular even view these concerns as part of a long-standing European scheme to westernize China, that is, to transform it into a Western-styled republic if not a political “dependence” (China Daily, 2009). Some Chinese scholars denounce these European acts as a historical nostalgia about Europe’s lost sense of superiority or as an example of European arrogance. Arguably, this perception of the West, relating both to Europe and US, prevails among the Chinese.

True, China has deemed the EU as a partner for trade and economic development in a relationship that would be comfortable to both parties, and Chinese scholars conceive of that relation as being free of any of the strategic complications akin to China’s relations with Japan and the US (Shambaugh, 2008: 136). The Chinese dissatisfaction with the EU is partly due to the EU’s refusal to extend “Market Economy Status” (MES) to China. China is more embarrassed and even angry to see the EU and its member states lump it together with Myanmar, Sudan, and Zimbabwe as states against which it maintains arms embargoes. The Beijing government keeps its diplomatic poise, but the media are quick to denounce this as a sign of the “Cold War mentality,” as is entertained by some hawkish and conservative scholars in Europe and America. It is undeniable that Washington has put political pressure on European governments to continue their arms embargo. Some Chinese EU experts correctly perceive the role of the US concerning the lifting of the embargo and argue that the EU will adopt a “dual policy” of lifting the arms embargo while simultaneously tightening control of exports to China, “thus replacing the ‘tangible’ discrimination by an ‘intangible’ one” (Shambaugh, 2008: 137). But it seems that they overlook the true intention of the EU’s and China’s request on two points. First, the EU would not allow Washington to intervene in their weapon trade in the long run; and what China truly needs from the EU is more dignity and equality rather than a piece of the business. In fact, China is now a position in which it can get access to high technology transfers from anywhere in the world, given its increasing economic power. The essence of the issue is: what does China want from the lifting of the arms embargo by the EU? And is it credible that “[r] emoving the arms ban will open the door to real strategic co-operation” (Huo, 2005: 4), as argued by some Chinese Europe watchers?


Considering the European impact on modern China and their mutual expectations of each other in the post-Cold War global order, China and Europe would like to see a multipolar world in which both can play influential and responsible roles. This common request comes from Europe’s engagement with China as well as the strategic outlook of both sides. Today, the two sides perceive their relationship as being one of “strategic partnership” that aims to address “global challenges” concerning a broad range of conventional and non-conventional issues. In addition, China openly argues that its peaceful development is comparable to the peaceful rise of Europe since the end of the World War II. To a certain extent this is true, given that China’s rise is likely to take several generations and given that the EU and European solidarity are far from being completed projects. As two emerging forces in global affairs, China and Europe hold great appeal to each other. Yet, Europe has been preoccupied with internal reforms linked to the Lisbon Treaty, its own economic woes and its debt crisis, and its member states are unwilling to get actively involved in many issue areas of China-Europe relations. Thus, in spite of the broad range of security and economic issues facing both sides, we cannot say that the mutual cooperation and understanding will move ahead smoothly and responsibly at all times. History shows that any bilateral or multilateral relations must often manifest change as the times change. In view of the Sino-European relations, several variables have to be taken into consideration.

First, the international environment is full of uncertainty. Since the attack of September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat has increased globally. China and Europe are not exempt from this threat. Although the two sides have more commonalities than divergences, dealing with terrorism and the related ethical issues might affect their mutual trust at any time. Second, the US intends to maintain its sole superpower status for as long as possible, expanding its influence and military presence all over the world. Washington has exerted pressure on Europe regarding the arms embargo that is seen as the key issue in the bilateral relationship between China and the EU; however, talking of this issue as a “time bomb” might be too exaggerated. Some scholars believe that “the interaction of the United States, China, and the EU will be a defining feature of the international system in the decades to come,” thereby making the emergence of a triangular relationship likely and sensitive (Shambaugh, 2005: 7). Third, internal developments in China and the EU constitute another concern, as both sides are facing great transformations at home. China will meet more challenges in terms of an aging population, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation, and inadequate social welfare. Its success on the global front depends on its success on the domestic front to enact political reform with anti-corruption policies at their core. Though Europe faces, to certain extent, different challenges, China and Europe are undergoing institutional reforms which manifest a great deal of uncertainty. Last but not least is the ability of political leaders on the two sides to make policy adjustments. Generally, a statesman needs to possess vision, vigor, and capability along with vital practical experience. Currently, Chinese and European leaders have demonstrated their pragmatism, a propensity for long-term strategic thinking, and sound judgment in making decisions. Chinese leaders lost none of their traditional wisdom and modern learning as they have embarked upon high-level dialogues and the building of mutual trust. Their European counterparts, by contrast, are more inclined to look at the issues from a global perspective. So far, both sides have been able to keep good sense and confidence towards each other.

Equally important, with internal issues growing widely and rapidly, leaders on both sides must pay close attention to each other’s domestic public concerns, pressures, and even manipulations. For example, the arms embargo and the EU’s way of treating China apply intense internal pressure on Beijing leaders to stand up for China’s dignity and to show their strength of will. Beijing, in turn, needs to realize the difficulties EU and national policy-makers face in balancing the diverse interests of 27 member states and the demands of their electorates. To cope with these issues, it is not sufficient to assume benign expectations of each other. More important are consistent dialogue, regular contacts, and constructive interactions. The core value of modern European diplomacy, the rule of law, and the traditional ethics of ancient China can go hand in hand in constructing a stable and tolerant world order. As Timothy Garton Ash argues, “[t]o have China eventually join … as a cooperative liberal democracy would be the biggest payout in the history of freedom … [To construct the ‘global order’], China can not only play by the rules of international behavior but also help to write and enforce them” (Ash, 2005: 160, 163).