Beneath unrest lies symbiotic harmony

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: Jul 9 2005, 05:30am hrs
The world, Napoleon declared, will tremble when China awakes. Well, China is rapidly emerging as a global power and the world is scrambling to come to terms with it. Chinese exports of T-shirts and flax yarn may be said to have brought down the French government at the end of May; they certainly forced President Jacques Chirac to change prime ministers mid-stream, as it were, in response to French fears of further job losses as a result of the rising tide of Chinese exports. But, the French also see China as a market for Pierre Cardin shirts and the Airbus.

A threat as well as an opportunity this is how the 25-nation European Union (EU) also sees China. This was brought out clearly during the one-day conference to mark the 30th anniversary of EU-China relations, organised here last week by a French and a Chinese think-tank. Trade remains the key feature of our relationship, Pierre Defraigne, director of the Brussels-based think tank, Eur-Ifri, told the large audience of European and Chinese academics, officials and business representatives.

Ambassador Ma Zhengang, president of the Beijing-based China Institute of International Studies, responded by pointing out that economically, both China and the EU are important economies in the world, and they are highly complementary, thanks to their respective advantages. What is more, the EU is now the biggest trade partner of China and a leading supplier of investments, technology and services to China. Their two-way trade doubled between 1999 and 2003, when it reached 146 billion euro (during the same period, Indo-EU two way trade rose by a third). EU exports to China came to 41 billion euro, its imports to 105 billion euro, leaving the EU with a trade deficit of nearly 65 billion euro in 2003. Contrary to popular belief, textiles and clothing account for under 15% of Chinas exports to the EU; its major exports are more high-tech than labour-intensive, and include computers, including monitors and printers; mobile phones and digital cameras.

While their economic relationship is still the most dynamic element of their 30-year relationship, the EU clearly would like to broaden it to include political and strategic elements also. Hence the EUs offer to enter into a strategic partnership with China. Ambassador Ma told the Brussels conference that as two major players of growing importance, both require a proper position on the world stage. But neither China nor the EU, he added, cherishes a wild ambition for world domination. Both prefer multilateralism to unilateralism (and) only seek to build up a peaceful, prosperous and friendly world.

Prof. Song Xinning, of Remin University in China, described relations between the EU and China as the best bilateral relations. While Chinas relations with the US were stable, they were also marked by uncertainties, because the US is a hegemonic power. With Japan, a dying power, China enjoyed good economic relations but bad political relations. As for its relations with Russia, still a recovering power, they were marked by strategic interests but also strategic competition.

If EU-China relations were the best, it was because both are rising powers, according to Prof. Song. Even so, they faced lots of problems in their bilateral relationship - political problems, arising in particular from the continuing arms embargo enforced by the EU, as well as trade problems, stemming from the large surplus in Chinas favour. Even so, Prof. Song thought the problems were manageable; in fact if there were no problems, that would be a problem. While China obviously is interested in maintaining close, friendly relations with the EU, it is the latter which has done most of the running so far. Thus, officials from the European Commission, which is responsible for both initiating and implementing the EUs China policy, made 206 trips to China last year, according to the European Commissioner for external relations, Dr. Benita Ferrero-Waldner. EU-China relations had changed beyond all recognition, she told the Brussels conference. What was primarily a trading relationship back in 1975 now embraces all the elements of a strategic partnership. But Prof. Song claimed he was not clear what strategic partnership means.

Ambassador Ma, quoting Confucius, noted that Chinas 30-year old relationship with the EU had reached the age of maturity. Yet in history, some Europeans always looked upon China with a strong suspicious eye, the Ambassador maintained. Therefore, instead of taking China as a trustworthy strategic partner, they regard China as another kind of country because China is not, as they claimed, a democracy. Quite a few, Ambassador Ma added, even cherish the dream of remoulding China according to the Western pattern.

For the president of the China Institute of International Studies, future relations between China and the EU are full of opportunities and the prospect is very bright. But the two sides need to handle those challenges so as to enable the strategic partnership.