Problematizing “Constructive Engagement” in EU-China Policy

Chengxin Pan. Europe and China. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press, 2012.


For much of the past two decades, “constructive engagement” has been a staple EU policy towards China. Promoted, for example, in the European Commission’s (EC) 1998 communication Building a Comprehensive Partnership with China, constructive engagement is said to have transformed EU-China relations into an increasingly maturing partnership (European Commission, 2003). China’s EU Policy Paper, the first ever such Chinese policy paper on a bilateral relationship, promptly echoed this view, describing China-EU relations as “better than at any time in history” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003). With booming bilateral trade, annual EU-China summits, frequent cultural exchanges, and more than 20 annual sectoral dialogues between the EC officials and Chinese ministries, leaders from both sides routinely referred to this relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Against this backdrop, many commentators describe EU-China relations as “broad and deep” (Shambaugh et al., 2008: 303). Indeed, the development of this partnership seemed so promising that some scholars went as far as to speak of the emergence of an EU-China axis (Shambaugh, 2004; 2005).

However, instead of evolving into a strategic axis, EU-China relations have suffered a series of setbacks in the past few years. Despite growing trade ties, not only has China yet to gain EU recognition of its market economy status, but it has also become the EU’s main anti-dumping target. This, together with the EU’s failure to lift the arms embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, has been an ongoing bone of contention between Brussels and Beijing. In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the relationship sank to new lows. Several European leaders, notably British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “boycotted” the Olympics opening ceremony. This boycott came in the wake of vocal and at times violent pro-Tibet protests against the Olympics torch relay in London and Paris and the angry outpouring of Chinese nationalist sentiment directed at the West in general and the French supermarket chain Carrefour in China in particular. Bilateral frictions persisted after the Olympic Games. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in Poland prompted Beijing to call off the scheduled EU-China Summit in France in December 2008. Although the summit was held in Prague a few months later, the very fact that both sides acknowledged that they ought to rebuild this relationship testifies to the extent of damage already done.

Why, then, has there been such a dramatic turnaround in EU-China relations within a short period of time? Puzzled by this question, some observers attribute it to the emergence of a new EU perception of China, whose unrelenting rise and uncertain implications have made China less an opportunity than a competitor or even threat (see Kamp and Masala, 2006; also Li, Y. 2007: 28-30). Other scholars turn their attention to the US factor. Citing the arms embargo controversy, they argue that the EU’s growing hard-line stance on China has much to do with the pressure from the US (Zhang, 2007). Still others link the deterioration of EU-China relations to the change of government in several European states. For instance, the downturn of this relationship apparently coincided with the election of more conservative leaders such as Sarkozy and Merkel, both of whom are strong advocates of moral values as a guide to foreign policy. Finally, there is a view that the increased tensions in EU-China relations are simply a reflection of the natural transition from “honeymoon” to the more mundane phase of “marriage” (Crossick, 2007; see also Liu, W. 2007: 30; Shambaugh et al., 2008: 303).

While all these angles shed some light on the recent volatility in EU-China relations, none of them are in themselves adequate. First, the changing European view of China is better seen as a symptom, rather than a major cause, of increased bilateral tensions, for it begs the question of why European perceptions of China have recently undergone transformation in the first place. Although we may trace this to China’s meteoric rise, this ascendancy is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, long-standing trade friction with China used to be downplayed by some European leaders as something inevitable (Xinhua, 2005; see also Zhang, 2007: 6-7). As far as the US factor is concerned, it is true that American pressure has played a part, especially in the EU’s decision not to lift its arms embargo of China. Nonetheless, the explanatory power of the US factor seems limited. Not only is there no single US factor to begin with, but much of the past three decades has witnessed a US-China policy of constructive engagement not dissimilar to that practiced by Europe. Similarly, although leadership style matters in foreign policy-making, the role of individual leaders such as Sarkozy and Merkel in EU-China relations should not be overstated. To paraphrase Marx, leaders make foreign policy, but they do not make them as they please. And although there is much truth to the argument that the recent fluctuation in EU-China relations has the hallmark of a transition from honeymoon to marriage, this metaphor has more descriptive than analytical value, for it offers little insight as to why and how such a transition took place.

In this chapter, I argue that the puzzling volatility of EU-China relations in recent years has much to do with the EU policy of “constructive engagement,” the very policy which has been linked to the positive momentum in EU-China relations. Before proceeding with this counter-intuitive proposition, it is necessary to first clarify the meaning of “constructive engagement” used in this chapter. By this term, I do not mean specific day-to-day policies that often come loosely under the rubric of “constructive engagement.” Rather, it refers here to a particular “normative project,” which aims, explicitly or implicitly, at the transformation of China more or less in the image of the European self. This project has no well-defined blueprint, nor is it reducible to tangible policy initiatives, but it nevertheless permeates through the way many EU countries envision and conduct their relations with China, and in doing so it contributes to volatility in EU-China relations.

The chapter is organized into five sections. The first section is a brief overview of the particular way of EU self-imagination in terms of “normative power Europe.” This is then followed by an investigation of the ideational or normative connection between the self-imagination of “normative power Europe” and the EU policy of “constructive engagement” toward China. The third section then illustrates how “constructive engagement” amounts to a normative project of transforming China. The fourth and final sections focus, respectively, on how this normative goal renders constructive engagement “mission impossible,” and how this false promise of engagement, when blamed on China’s perceived intransigence and unsuitability for convergence, helps both fuel disillusionment and frustration with Beijing, and pave the way for a more confrontational China policy. In the conclusion, to anchor EU-China relations in a more stable and sustainable setting, I call for a more self-reflective way of EU self-imagination and a more modest and realistic China policy associated with it.

“Normative power Europe”: The discursive construction of a European Self

Insofar as constructive engagement is a normative project of making the Chinese Other in European self-image, it is intimately linked to the way in which the EU represents or imagines itself. The EU’s self-identity is not primarily an empirical question about what objectively identifiable characteristics the EU community would entail. Rather, it is mainly a discursive phenomenon and a constructed product. As such, it needs to be understood through discourse.

Although the EU’s self-construction takes place in many different discursive contexts and takes on a variety of discursive forms, its predominant manifestation centers around the discourse of “normative power Europe.” The Laeken Declaration on the Future of the European Union, for example, calls Europe “the continent of humane values” and “the continent of liberty, solidarity and above all diversity” (European Council, 2001). Likewise, The European Union: Furthering Human Rights and Democracy across the Globe, a brochure published by the European Commission External Relations, claims that the EU is founded on the principles of “liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law” (Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2007: 5). Apparently shared by the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament, the consensus that “the EU plays a distinctive role in international politics, eschewing traditional power politics and acting as a ‘force for good’ in the world” is present also at the member state level (Hyde-Price, 2008: 29; Diez, 2005: 620). By the end of the 1990s, for example, Britain, France, and Germany all had agreed that the EU should be an “ethical” actor in international relations (Hyde-Price, 2008: 30).

This particular discursive construction of Europe’s self-identity is manifested not only in official rhetoric, but also in academic literature. As Nicolaïdis and Howse (2002: 768) point out, the Journal of Common Market Studies has been an integral part of the European project. Indeed, the term “normative power Europe” itself had its scholarly origin in an article published in this journal. Ian Manners (2002: 241), the article’s author, argues that:

Although we may be skeptical about the application and indivisibility of such core norms … we cannot overlook the extent to which the EU is normatively different to other polities with its commitment to individual rights and principles in accordance with the ECHR and the UN.

Elsewhere, he proclaimed that the EU “has been, is and always will be a normative power in world politics” (Manners, 2008: 45). In defining Europe this way Manners is not alone. In a similar vein, Leonard (2005: 5) has called the EU a “transformative power.” And both seem to have drawn their inspiration from a much earlier notion of Europe as a “civilian power” developed by François DuchÐne in the early 1970s. “Europe as a whole,” DuchÐne noted,

could well become the first example in history of a major center of the balance of power becoming in the era of its decline not a colonized victim but an exemplar of a new stage in political civilization. The European Community in particular would have a chance to demonstrate the influence which can be wielded by a large political co-operative formed to exert essentially civilian forms of power. (quoted in Nicolaïdis and Howse, 2002: 770)

To highlight the discursive nature of the EU self-imagination is not to say that this EU self-identity is entirely imaginary or a mere fantasy. Without doubt, “normative power Europe” is to some extent grounded in history, political practice, and social reality. For example, in the European Security Strategy, the EU’s normative characteristics are directly attributed to the historical achievement of European integration in the second half of the 20th century, a period in which “the progressive spread of the rule of law and democracy has seen authoritarian regimes change into secure, stable and dynamic democracies. Successive enlargements are making a reality of the vision of a united and peaceful continent” (European Council, 2003). For this reason, Manners (2008: 45) argues that “[s]imply by existing as different in a world of states and the relations between them, the European Union changes the normality of ‘international relations.’ In this respect the EU is a normative power …”

Nevertheless, the identity of “normative power Europe” should be treated more as a discursive construct than an indisputable fact out there. As far as the EU’s actual performance goes, the EU’s claim to a normative power has often been contested. Even Manners (2008: 45) is conscious that:

it is one thing to say that the EU is a normative power by virtue of its hybrid polity consisting of supranational and international forms of governance; it is another to argue that the EU acts in a normative (i.e. ethically good) way.

Yet, to most critics, the problem is primarily whether the EU has lived up to its identity of “normative power Europe” in foreign policy practice, rather than the fundamental desirability of that identity per se, which has been deemed both appropriate and desirable. In doing so, those critics have acted as unwitting, albeit more critical, participants in the discursive construction of the EU as a normative power, an identity which is taken as an unproblematic starting point for the articulation of the EU’s mission (Callahan, 2007: 793). This chapter is not interested in empirically determining whether or not the EU has been a normative power; such an empirical investigation, while important, misses a critical point. My purpose, rather, is to understand how this “normative power Europe” construction shapes EU foreign policy in general and China policy in particular. It is to this question that the next section now turns.

Self/Other Construction and the Policy of Engagement

Social constructivism believes that the discursive construction of self-identity is not a purely rhetorical exercise, but is intimately linked to sociopolitical practice. In the words of Onuf (1998: 59), “saying is doing: talking is undoubtedly the most important way that we go about making the world what it is.” More specifically on the EU’s self-construction, Diez (2005: 626) argues that:

From a discourse analytical point of view, the most interesting question about normative power therefore is not whether Europe is a normative power or not, but how it is constructed as one; paraphrasing Stefano Guzzini, what the use of the term “normative power” does. This shifts the focus of the analysis from a discussion of normative power as an empirical phenomenon to a second-order analysis of the power inherent in the representation of “normative power Europe.”

Thus understood, “normative power Europe” is never far removed from power and political practice. From the beginning, this self-imagination aims to both shape and legitimate particular EU foreign policy so as to enhance its international clout. As a senior official in the Swedish defense ministry put it, as a matter of urgency, if the EU did not act quickly to establish its normative identity within the next ten to fifteen years, its opportunity to influence world order would be lost forever (Mayer, 2008: 64). And Manners himself acknowledges the power implications of “normative power Europe.” Seeing no contradiction in this term, he suggests that “the ability to define what passes for ‘normal’ in world politics is, ultimately, the greatest power of all” (Manners, 2002: 253).

What makes “normative power Europe” powerful is the particular way in which the EU is imagined and constructed as a source of moral authority in an otherwise flawed world. For example, in a 2007 interview the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso argued, in rather bombastic tones, that:

we are one of the most important, if not the most important, normative power in the world … It is because we have been successful in establishing norms, and applying them to different realities. In a way, we are a laboratory of globalization. The most advanced ever … It is in fact the EU that sets standards for others much of the time. (Peterson, 2007)

As soon as the EU self is constructed this way, it is at the same time an indirect construction of Otherness. In accentuating its uniqueness as a normative power committed to liberty, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and good governance, it is obvious that the EU implicitly casts China as a less than ethical actor. For example, by anchoring itself in one of the normative principles concerning the abolition of the death penalty, the EU reinforces its “abolitionist vanguard” identity in distinction from “others” such as the US and China (Manners, 2002: 251). At the core of this EU self-imagination is a power relationship that the EU has much to offer to the rest of the world in general and China in particular, “be it on how to open markets, support poor regions or protect the environment” (Barysch et al., 2005: 8). The flip-side of this power relationship is that China, being a less ethically responsible power, needs to learn from the EU’s experience and requires “our” engagement. It is in this sense that “constructive engagement” has been justified.

A stable self-identity often requires the routinizing of relations with significant others, for only in doing so could the actor “maintain a sense of self” (Mitzen, 2006: 273). The EU self-identity seems no exception. To the extent that “the extension of the political dialogue of the EU with third partners can be interpreted as an indicator for the Union’s growing importance as an international actor” (Algieri, 2008: 76), constructive engagement with China in turn provides precisely such a routinized relationship in the “real world” in which the agency of “normative power Europe” can be validated and given substance. By actively engaging China on the basis of international norms, the EU has the apparent opportunity to prove true to itself as a normative power not only in name but also in practice. After all, according to Nicolaïdis and Howse (2002: 771), “civilian power rests on the synergies between the EC’s being, its political essence, and its doing, its external actions.” By serving as a day-to-day “reminder” of the existence of the Self/Other dichotomy between the EU and China in normative terms, constructive engagement with the Chinese Other helps reinforce the way in which the EU imagines itself as a civilizing agent. Callahan (2007: 779, 784) notes that the EU engagement with China helps to “achieve the EU’s goal of ‘raising the EU’s profile in China,’ which in turn legitimizes the Union as a major global actor” and “aids the EU’s project of crafting the image of Europe as a ‘civilian power.’”

Indeed, precisely because “normative power Europe” is discursively constructed, the implementation of constructive engagement becomes all the more necessary whereby the identity of “normative power Europe” can be made to appear real. Otherwise, it would have become less obvious and less credible, and credibility is one of the very considerations for the EU to adopt its long-term strategy of engaging China. As a Centre for European Reform report puts it so well, “the EU realized that it needed a coherent China strategy for the credibility of its emerging common foreign and security policy” (Barysch et al., 2005: 7). As a consequence, China seems to be a most convenient site where the EU as “a new type of entity with actor quality” (Buzan and Little, 2000: 359) could be demonstrated and tested in theory and through the practice of engagement.

Constructive Engagement: A Normative Project of Transforming China

It now becomes clear that a symbiotic relationship exists between the EU’s self-imagination and constructive engagement. The latter depends on the particular way of EU self-construction, and at the same time serves to reinforce that self-identity through its implicit goal of transforming a Chinese Other. It is in this sense that I argue that constructive engagement, for all its positive contribution to the development of EU-China relations, is ultimately a false promise and mission impossible.

From the outset, this policy is based on a false premise that the Chinese Other ought to and can be transformed into the European Self. Seeing China “as an authoritarian regime in transition,” many Europeans are convinced that they “can help China along the path to more democracy and prosperity by working with it and offering Europe’s own model of economic opening, democracy and the rule of law” (Barysch et al., 2005: 68). Couched in almost identical language, the 2003 EU Commission Report on EU-China relations argues that the EU has “a major political and economic stake in supporting China’s successful transition to a stable, prosperous and open country that fully embraces democracy, free market principles and the rule of law” (European Commission, 2003: 3, emphasis added).

Such normative connotations of constructive engagement are similarly on display in the EU policy document EU-China: Closer Partners, Growing Responsibilities:

Democracy, human rights and the promotion of common values remain fundamental tenets of EU policy and of central importance to bilateral relations. The EU should support and encourage the development of a full, healthy and independent civil society in China. It should support efforts to strengthen the rule of law—an essential basis for all other reform. At the same time, the EU will continue to encourage full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms in all regions of China; freedom of speech, religion and association, the right to a fair trial and the protection of minorities call for particular attention—in all regions of China. The EU will also encourage China to be an active and constructive partner in the Human Rights Council, holding China to the values which the UN embraces, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (European Commission, 2006: 4)

The repeated use of the words “full” and “all regions of China” in the above quotation is particularly illustrative, for it testifies to the rather high hope placed on China by proponents of constructive engagement. Such hope is not just hollow rhetoric, for it has been put into practice through a number of EU-China working groups, as well as through a long list of specific requests of China as outlined in the October 2006 Communication from the European Commission:

  1. “Open its markets and ensure fair market competition”;
  2. “reduce and eliminate trade and non-tariff barriers”;
  3. “level the [commercial] playing field”;
  4. “fully implement WTO obligations”;
  5. “better protect intellectual property rights”;
  6. “end forced technology transfer”;
  7. “stop granting prohibited subsidies”;
  8. “work on clean energy technologies”;
  9. “be a more active and responsible energy partner”;
  10. “ensure balance in science and technology cooperation”;
  11. “[recognize] the international responsibilities commensurate to its economic importance and role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council”;
  12. “better protect human rights”;
  13. “[ensure] more accountable government”; be more “results oriented with higher quality exchanges and concrete results” in the human rights dialogue;
  14. “ratify the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”; enter into formal dialogue with the EU and “improve transparency” concerning aid policies in Africa;
  15. “maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”; improve “transparency on military expenditures and objectives”;
  16. “comply with all non-proliferation and disarmament treaties”;
  17. “strengthen export controls of WMD [weapon of mass destruction]-related materials …”

To be sure, not every piece of EU policy on China is necessarily imbued with the normative objective of transforming it. Indeed, many would argue that constructive engagement, instead of harboring a grand design on China, represents a more or less pragmatic response to China’s growing influence and economic opportunity for trade and commerce. At most, it seems that this policy has only a practical and moderate purpose of integrating China into the international community as a responsible stakeholder. For example, the 2006 Communication from the European Commission EU-China: Closer Partners, Growing Responsibilities states that

The EU’s fundamental approach to China must remain one of engagement and partnership … The partnership should meet both sides’ interests and the EU and China need to work together as they assume more active and responsible international roles, supporting and contributing to a strong and effective multilateral system. The goal should be a situation where China and the EU can bring their respective strengths to bear to offer joint solutions to global problems. (European Commission, 2006: 2)

Nothing mentioned here, it seems, is too ambitious or unrealistic. Indeed, many Chinese appear to have embraced similar lines of argument. Yet, I suggest that those apparently practical goals are merely a false modesty of constructive engagement. To the extent that there is “a hidden utopianism … behind the pragmatic project of building Europe” (Nicolaïdis and Howse, 2002: 781), underlying the seemingly pragmatic policy of China engagement is a similar utopianism. With the EU considering itself to be more advanced in the evolutionary scale than the Chinese, it has been tempting to believe that its engagement with China is ultimately a one-way conversion process. As an EU official made clear: “Officially we call it ‘exchange of experience,’ but in reality we are exporting our model to China” (Barysch et al., 2005: 52).

True, when European policy-makers and scholars talk about the convergence between the EU and China, sometimes they mean it in a technical and regulatory sense. And yet, considering that few of them ponder the question of which side should converge with which, even this talk of technical and regulatory convergence is highly normative. For instance, in their discussion on “the ongoing work on common standards and regulatory convergence,” the authors of the European Policy Centre working paper EU-China Relations: Towards a Strategic Partnership, while qualifying the EU’s objective as helping “China to be a peaceful, stable, democratic (although not necessarily in the full western sense),” nevertheless cannot help but demand that China “reform its rules and practices in line with European and international norms” (Crossick et al., 2005: 29-30, emphasis added).

Furthermore, regulatory convergence between China and the EU is often assumed to be a prelude to deeper and fuller convergence in the normative sense down the track. This is especially the case when progress in regulatory convergence further raises the expectation of normative convergence. Indeed, the above-mentioned reform in technical and regulatory areas has been widely expected to have a spillover effect in the longer term.

In the final analysis, even as constructive engagement involves many “non-normative” aspects, there is often a need for it to be wrapped in normative terms so as to appear legitimate and appealing to the public. This explains why, in trading with China for profit, business leaders seldom forget to add, at least in public rhetoric, that their commercial engagement is not merely commercial in nature, but is at the same time fostering liberal change in China. In doing so, those leaders are in good company, as former European Commissioner Emma Bonino similarly understands the centrality of an ethical aura to foreign policy-making in general and the “marketing” of foreign policy in particular:

I am becoming more and more convinced that a foreign policy which is based solely on interests, whether on a national or a regional thereof, is no longer sustainable. In my view Europe needs a foreign policy firmly anchored in ethics, and based on universally accepted values and principles. What we need are transparent political choices that can be explained to our national parliaments, public and media. (Manners, 2008: p. 60)

Mission Impossible (I): The False Promise of Constructive Engagement

Thus far, I have argued that constructive engagement operates, whether in sincerity or out of expediency, on a normative goal of converting the Chinese Other in the EU’s self-image. This normative project, similar to many liberal attempts to assimilate difference in international relations, sets itself up for a fall. Its overly ambitious goal of transforming China, for all its normative appeal, is mission impossible.

The reasons for this are several. To begin with, while there is a constant normative undertone associated with “constructive engagement,” the term also serves as a convenient grab bag for an array of China policies pursued by a number of governments for various purposes during different periods. That is, policy varies not only across different countries, but also between successive governments within a given country. As a consequence, constructive engagement is a vague, ill-defined policy concept in theory, and is inevitably fraught with contradictions and inconsistency in practice. Although it officially seeks to integrate and transform China, in reality it is more often than not a product of necessity and compromise. As Algieri (2008: 77) puts it,

European foreign policy towards China is, when it comes to democracy promotion and the human rights dimension, clearly incoherent. The EU argues that a policy of cooperative engagement of China is most suitable for European interests—but behind this approach lies the very pragmatic conviction that the costs of non-cooperation with China cannot be afforded.

Indeed, Kagan (2004) suggests that the so-called “normative power” of the EU itself is a virtue made out of necessity, namely, the relative military weakness of the EU. As such, it cannot function without the security guarantee of US military power. Both its inherent concern with and dependence upon power thus make the policy of constructive engagement, to paraphrase Wood (2009a), more of a normal policy than a normative policy.

This is of course not to single out “constructive engagement” for criticism, as the same can be said of almost any foreign policy. Yet, given that constructive engagement takes upon itself a normative goal of transforming China, its internal inconsistency seems less forgivable. It is argued that “normative power can only be applied credibly under a key condition: consistency” (Nicolaïdis and Nicolaïdis, quoted in Manners, 2008: 56). But consistency is precisely what is lacking in EU-China policy. In any case, by preaching lofty ideals on the one hand and refusing to sacrifice economic, strategic, and political interests of the EU on the other, constructive engagement smacks of hypocrisy. Commenting on France’s two-pronged policy of playing the Tibetan human rights card and at the same time pursuing economic trade relations with China, Chinese scholar Feng Zhongping was quoted in China Daily (2008) as saying that “China doesn’t want the West to think that ‘OK, we will meet the Dalai Lama and business will go on as usual’.” Similarly, many Chinese see nothing but double standards in the EU’s continued refusal to recognize China’s complete market economy status, even though it has granted such status to Russia (Ruan, 2008: 291; also Li, X. 2007: 109).

If one takes into account the long history of Europe’s encounter with China in the past one and a half centuries, as many Chinese do, this European policy inconsistency is brought into even sharper relief. As Yahuda (2008: 21) notes, for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries the Europeans, despite their professed desire to modernize China, had been unsympathetic to China’s new generations of nationalists, preferring instead to deal with the Qing state—and when that dynasty collapsed—with some kind of “strongman.” What is more, many EU policy-makers are unapologetic about their double standards and policy inconsistency. Robert Cooper (2003), for example, justifies the practice of double standards on the basis that Europe, being a postmodern entity, should differentiate its foreign policy toward other postmodern states from that toward pre-modern and modern states. In his words, “In the jungle, one must use the laws of the jungle” (Cooper, 2003: 62). However, the problem is that, as Hyde-Price (2008: 29) notes, “no actor can effectively pursue its own interests in a diverse and pluralist international system, and claim to be ‘doing good’ by others, at the same time.”

The upshot of policy inconsistency and double standards in both contemporary and historical contexts is that the credibility of “normative power Europe” has been found wanting, which in turn undercuts the efficacy of constructive engagement. Though not solely responsible for the lack of “hoped transformation” in China, there is little doubt that the lack of consistency in the practice of constructive engagement is central to understanding China’s “failure” to live up to European expectations.

Also contributing to this problem is the failure of “constructive engagement” to recognize the agency of China as a relatively independent subject in international relations. While China’s importance as an emerging economic and geopolitical power has long been widely recognized, until today, its role as an international agency with the ability to think and respond to international stimulus has yet to be fully appreciated. Although the rhetoric of “dialogue” and “partnership” supposedly affords China some measure of equal agency, in reality China has been assumed almost invariably as a passive learner of international (EU) norms. But China is anything but a passive follower. For instance, while European policy-makers see the existence of normative differences between the EU and China, and hence the need for China to learn from the West, China often sees no such difference. As China’s EU Policy Paper (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003) argues, there is “no fundamental conflict of interests between China and the EU.” Although it does acknowledge the existence of differences in historical background, cultural heritage, political system, and economic development level, the Chinese document does not see them as a sign of its own normative inferiority. This Chinese self-perception, rightly or wrongly, runs counter to the construction of China in the EU’s self-imagination, and thus greatly undermines the normative starting point of constructive engagement.

My point here is not that with its own subjectivity, China will not learn from others. Rather, Chinese learning from others is likely to take place on their “own” terms, and they are fundamentally capable of deciding from whom they should learn and for what purposes. The fact that there are always many competing Chinese subjectivities makes China’s learning or socialization an even more dynamic and less linear process. As a consequence, there exists an almost inevitable mismatch between what is intended by the EU’s constructive engagement policy and Chinese response to it. Callahan (2007: 801) captures this mismatch well when he suggests that while engagement seeks to socialize China into the international community dominated by European and Western norms,

China is not necessarily learning the lessons that the EU is teaching. Rather than reproducing the Eastern European reform experience of becoming democratic in a peaceful borderless community, Beijing is setting its own standards in order to promote the party-state’s interests: authoritarian capitalism and a multilateralism that preserves national sovereignty.

Moreover, even as China is being socialized into certain Western norms, there is no guarantee that it will behave in accordance with Western or European interests. In the past, for example, China’s internalization of such European ideas as Westphalian sovereignty and nationalism has served to resist European dominance and interference. Today, its embrace of the rule of law, the free market, or even democracy may have a similar effect.

In any case, China’s agency means that EU-China relations are better seen as a two-way interaction, a contractual relationship, or a bargaining process, rather than a one-way street as presupposed by the policy of “constructive engagement.” China’s EU Policy Paper (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003) emphatically stresses the importance of the principles of “mutual respect,” “mutual trust,” “mutual benefit,” “reciprocity,” and “consultation on an equal basis” as the foundation for EU-China relations as well as for its EU policy. By Callahan’s (2007: 787) counts, the word “mutual” appears 19 times in the 2003 EU document A Maturing Partnership (European Commission, 2003) and 26 times in the much shorter Chinese document on China’s EU policy. This interesting contrast should not be dismissed as merely coincidental or trivial, for it seems to indicate Beijing’s desire for an equal and essentially reciprocal relationship with the EU. As shown in its EU policy paper, China is able to play a more assertive role by asking the EU to “fulfill a long list of conditions before they could be considered deserving of a ‘strategic partnership’ with China” (Cabestan, 2008: 95). True, such demands, along with other Chinese perceptions of Europe, to some extent betray China’s own utopian wishful thinking about the EU, and should bear due blame for the mutual disillusionment between Europe and China. But what this illustrates is that the logic of reciprocity rather than one-way convergence is characteristic of EU-China relations. Without a reciprocal relationship between the EU and China, the latter’s cooperation, to say nothing of its conversion, is unlikely to be forthcoming (Wu, 2007: 88). For instance, when the EU failed to honor what Beijing regarded as a “formal commitment” from the EU (i.e., the lifting of EU arms embargo), China in return decided not to proceed with the ratification of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Callahan, 2007: 780; also Yahuda, 2008: 28).

Another reason why the transformation of China in European image is almost impossible lies in the paradoxical role of the Other in self-imagination. On the one hand, the presence of the Other, seen as a potential moral threat to the EU’s self-identity, calls for the engagement and ultimate conversion of that Other. But at the same time, by virtue of its “existence,” the Other proves to be a useful foil against which the EU self can be constructed and sustained. Should constructive engagement ever succeed in transforming a significant Other such as China into sameness, the very “unity” of the EU self may run the risk of falling apart. Such is the acute dilemma facing the policy of constructive engagement. On the one hand, the success of engagement is measured by its ability to ultimately bring the self and Other into convergence, but at the same time, by removing the self/Other difference, such success would rob the engagement policy of its mission, justification, and raison d’être. Hence the contradiction between the professed goal and the normative foundation of constructive engagement.

Last but not least, insofar as difference has yet, if ever, to be fully overcome within the EU itself, transcending difference between the EU and China will prove to be even more difficult. For all the remarkable achievement associated with European integration, what distinguishes the EU from other political entities lies less in its “engineering convergence among its members towards higher standards of human rights and more in its capacity to manage enduring differences within a normative and institutional framework.” As a result, “the actual institutions of European integration always fall short of the underlying utopian vision” (Nicolaïdis and Howse, 2002: 771, 781 emphasis added). As far as EU foreign policy is concerned, the consensus is that there has been no consensus (Liu, F. 2007: 119; Wood, 2009b; Barysch et al., 2005). “Lofty aspirations aside,” suggest Craig and de Búrca (2003: 168), “the EU plays many different roles at the same time, and its international identity is complex and composite. In positive terms, it can be described as flexible and multifaceted; in negative terms, as fractured and confused.” This lack of a unified voice is clearly characteristic of its China policy, with some describing it as “a gigantic patchwork quilt” (quoted in Callahan, 2007: 798). If the EU has not been able to fully transform itself into a homogeneous entity, how could it realistically expect China to be transformed into a mirror image of the EU self? Granted that China is prepared to converge with the EU, given the latter’s diversity, which European state should China look to as a model?

It is worth noting here that by highlighting its false promise of transforming China in European image, I am not arguing that the policy of constructive engagement has been a complete failure and should be discarded altogether. No doubt, this policy has achieved much positive outcome and has even to some extent transformed Chinese practices with regard to issues such as the death penalty, democratic governance promotion at the village level, and new regulations in the field of criminal procedures (Balme, 2008: 153). Even so, I argue that constructive engagement is simply ill-defined and ill-equipped to fulfill its tacit goal of transforming China in European images. Its constitutive effect, however real, is essentially conditional and diffuse in nature.

Mission Impossible (II): Implications for EU-China Policy

The previous section has examined why, judging by its own normative objective of converting the Chinese Other, the EU’s constructive engagement with China is mission impossible. Certainly, this criticism of constructive engagement as a false promise is nothing new. In The China Fantasy, Mann (2007) mounted an unforgiving critique of US engagement policy toward China. His central argument is that engagement “has been sold to the American people on the basis of a fraud—that is, on the false premise that trade and ‘engagement’ with China would change China’s political system” (p. 26). Based on this “China fantasy,” Mann (p. 104) believes that engagement has become “the justification for unrestricted trade with China” and served only to divert attention from China’s one-party regime and its human rights abuses, rather than to help change them.

Mann is right in pointing out the false expectation of political change in China through trade and economic engagement. But that is as far as our agreement goes. As noted above, my criticism of “constructive engagement” is in fact not about this policy per se, but about its deeply normative goal concerning China and the false premise upon which it is based. This is in stark contrast with Mann and others who do not question the legitimacy or viability of the very goal of transforming China, but instead blame China as an obstructionist Other for the lack of such transformation. While this latest Othering of China, closely associated with the false promise of constructive engagement, may reinforce the need for further engagement with China, it could also serve to question the wisdom of engagement and give voice to alternative, more assertive ways of dealing with this apparently intransigent Other.

More likely than not, China’s perceived stubborn presence as a normative Other evokes a profound sense of disillusionment and frustration. The EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson’s attitude is a case in point. Hitherto a strong advocate of open EU markets for Chinese products, Mandelson became increasingly impatient and frustrated with the “lack of progress” in China. In a letter to President Barroso on October 17, 2007, he accused China of, among other things, being “procedurally obstructive” where dialogue had been set up (Crossick, 2007). Mandelson’s view of China is not uncommon. In the October 2006 EC communication on EU-China relations, the tone on China turned visibly more critical than previous communications. It stated that “in Europe there is a growing perception that China’s as yet incomplete implementation of WTO obligations and new barriers to market access are preventing a genuinely reciprocal trading relationship” (European Commission, 2006: 7). And by the EC’s (p. 4) own admission, “the EU’s expectations—which have increased in line with the quality of our partnership—are increasingly not being met.”

With China seen increasingly as a profound affront to the very being of “normative power Europe,” a sense of disillusionment, frustration, and even fear felt in Europe is likely to add momentum to calls for rethinking EU-China policy on the grounds that constructive engagement now looks ineffective, weak, timid, or even guilty of appeasement. For example, the EU’s human rights dialogues with China have been under attack. Some European diplomats complain that those dialogues are quite formulaic, unable to deliver the promised change in China’s human rights. Such verdicts not only make it difficult for advocates of constructive engagement to defend their policy, but also directly imply the necessity for more assertive and aggressive strategies toward China. For instance, Barysch et al. (2005: 68) call for the EU to be “more courageous in linking the different aspects of its relationship with China,” such as tying the lifting of the arms embargo on China with the lat-ter’s concrete progress on human rights and arms control. Similarly, Fox and Godement (2009: 13) suggest that the previous “unconditional engagement” should be replaced by a policy of “reciprocal engagement,” which means “firming up the EU approach and driving a harder bargain in negotiations with China.” Such lines of argument have gained particular traction against the backdrop of China’s seemingly relentless rise, as exemplified both by the staging of the Beijing Olympics and China’s growing trade surplus with the EU. It is in this context that we can better understand why in recent years, as mentioned at the opening of this chapter, EU China policy has undergone a shift from engagement toward “containment.”

Conventional wisdom often sees such a policy turn merely as a result of the triumph of hard-liners over “panda huggers” in their jostle for political influence over China policy. However, as illustrated in the previous section, were it not for the false promise of “constructive engagement” which brings about widespread disillusionment and frustration with China, the hard-liners’ victory would have been more difficult to come by. In this sense, “constructive engagement,” while capable of bringing certain positive changes in China, is not necessarily the opposite of “containment,” but rather its strange bedfellow. Or to put it differently, “containment” is an integral part of the unintended policy consequences of the false promise of “constructive engagement.”

Conclusion: Critical Self-Reflection on EU Self-Imagination

This chapter has sought to explain the recent fluctuation in EU-China relations through a critical investigation of the EU’s China policy of constructive engagement, a policy which is both predicated upon and serves to reinforce a particular way of EU self-imagination known as “normative power Europe.” Based on this EU self-imagination, constructive engagement has been pursued, explicitly or implicitly, as a normative project of transforming China into European image. But from the outset, this project, operating on the basis of a false premise, is a false promise and mission impossible. In the absence of a critical self-reflection on “normative power Europe,” such a false promise necessarily leads to disappointment and disillusionment with China, which in turn lays the foundation for a more hard-line stance toward China. This, as I have argued, is the context in which the recent volatility in EU-China relations can be best understood.

To the extent that the particular way in which the EU imagines itself is at the core of EU-China tensions, constructing a stable EU-China relationship requires a critical self-reflection on the part of the EU as well as more cooperation from China. More to the point, instead of placing the blame solely on China for failing to become like “us” or accusing “engagers” as “appeasers,” EU policy-makers as well as EU-based scholars would do well to become more self-reflective of the folly, utopianism, and a lingering Eurocentrism of their normative project that is the EU’s self-imagination as a “normative power.” A good starting point of this critical self-reflection, for example, is to recognize that

We live in a pluralistic, non-European, non-western world; in fact, in a complex “one world of many worlds.” This world has no undisputed centre: not America, nor the West, Europe or any of the rising powers. No longer can anyone claim “centrality” in world affairs, even if many players, old and new, are confident they can. Illusions are forever. (Mayer, 2008: p. 62)

The implication here is that in dealing with China, the EU should be more modest and realistic about its global role and responsibility. In saying so, I do not suggest that Europe should relinquish its moral responsibility altogether and turn a blind eye to wrongdoings in China or elsewhere, nor that the EU has nothing to offer in terms of the development of human rights, democracy, good governance, and the rule of law. Far from it. Rather, my argument is that it should be more self-aware (or be more “ironist,” to use Rorty’s [1989: 73-74] terminology) that its self-assumed responsibility, for all its good intention and constructive potential, is just that, self-assumed and contingent, rather than absolute and universal. In other words, the European project is “open-ended” and “experimental” in nature (Nicolaïdis and Howse, 2002: 781). As such, it should and could benefit more from what Delanty and He (2008: 338) call “cosmopolitan engagement” with China, in which “both sides take the perspective of the other seriously, and both sides engage in substantive dialogue with a critical eye to cultural equality and mutual learning.”

To engage in such critical self-reflection and cosmopolitan engagement will not be easy. Forged during centuries of colonial rule over many parts of the world, the deep-seated mission civilisatrice in the EU self-imagination is unlikely to go away any time soon. Moreover, the self/Other dichotomy based on such self-imagination seems to paint a simpler and more reassuring picture, and thus can be more readily understood and appropriated by politicians and the general public alike as a rallying cry for political action. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to leave this normative project of self-imagination unquestioned. The longer such self-imagination is kept intact, the more disillusionment the EU may experience in its relations with China. And more (mutual) disillusionment will almost inevitably mean more tensions and volatility in this crucial relationship. This is why the EU’s constructive engagement with China must move beyond its normative delusion that has its roots in the uncritical self-imagination of “normative power Europe.”