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Europe and ChinaStrategic Partners or Rivals?$

Roland Vogt

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9789888083879

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888083879.001.0001

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Limitations for Europe's Partnership with China

Limitations for Europe's Partnership with China

(p.59) Chapter 3 Limitations for Europe's Partnership with China
Europe and China
Roland Vogt
Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Many of the problems Europe faces in coming to terms with a rising China stem from domestic politics. The European political landscape has changed as the focus of political contestation has moved away from ideology to issue and identity politics that is characteristic of post-material societies. In consequence of these shifts, political party systems have gradually become more fragmented. Fragile governing coalitions in many EU member states diminish the incentives European of decision-makers to exercise leadership and invest personal political capital to upgrade relations with China. As Europe finds itself in a process of relative economic and political decline vis-�is China, public opinion about China has turned increasingly negative.

Keywords:   Domestic politics, Issue and identity politics, Political fragmentation, Public opinion, Fear of China


Over the course of the last decade, relations between Europe and China have entered a new era. For much of the years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, relations between Europe (especially Western Europe) and China have been secondary and distant. Yet, with the return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty in the late 1990s, the last vestiges of a European presence on Chinese soil disappeared. The widespread condemnation in Europe over Beijing's handling of the student protests in June 1989 has given way to a policy of “constructive engagement.” And last but not least, the enormity of China's social and economic transformation created new bonds of interdependence between both regions. Even before the eruption of the global financial crisis, China had become a key market for much of Europe's exports and an essential source for many of its imports.

These factors have significantly changed the scope and importance of relations between Europe and China. China is quickly emerging as the most important—and most challenging—Asian counterpart for most European states as well as for the EU. The global financial crisis has exacerbated this tendency even further. The crisis revealed the extent to which export-oriented economies in Europe (such as Germany) have become dependent on the Chinese market. The highly indebted economies of southern Europe (as well as Ireland) have become more dependent than ever on China's willingness to buy Greek, Portuguese, Irish, Italian, and Spanish bonds. The crisis has also changed the expectations and demands on Beijing and its future (p.60) role in global affairs, propelling China into a new position of prominence and strength—both in economic and financial as well as diplomatic terms.

For Europe, the global financial crisis has been a turning point in its relations with China. So far, Europe has sought to engage China gradually into an ever tighter net of multilateral governance mechanisms. This approach has by and large worked well for Europe, since it matched China's own foreign policy ambitions. Now, by contrast, there is a real possibility that China will move to consolidate its newly found influence by engaging in close bilateral relationships with the United States—a so-called “G2,” as well as with other emerging economies. For Europe, this would be an unwelcome development, as its appeal, voice, and influence would diminish in relative terms.

Given the growing density of interdependence between Europe and China, one of the main challenges for both players will be to upgrade, enhance, and improve the mutual relationship. This is a major diplomatic challenge for Europe and China alike. Transforming the state of relations from their secondary nature to a more prominent position will require substantial amount of commitment from both sides.

This desire for building a partnership is stronger for Europe than it is for China (see Sutter, 2008: 343). Analysts across Europe are keenly aware that the continent is suffering a relative decline in influence as China's economic power and diplomatic clout continue to grow. In the long run, Europe needs China more than China needs Europe. The global financial crisis is only the latest piece of evidence elucidating this trend. Yet European decision-makers are faced with few options. The continent lacks leverage to influence developments in China to a significant extent. They can exercise some power over trade issues and commercial access of Chinese exports to Europe, as well as the sale of high technology goods. But this form of economic influence is limited and its application is dangerous, since it could upset the lucrative trade between both regions.

Given that Europe's options are limited, it is not surprising that the policy of “engagement” with China has become the default option of the EU and its member states alike. If the international conditions are facilitating the creation of a Sino-European partnership, the same cannot be said about the internal or domestic conditions in Europe. More than ever before, internal developments in Europe are shaping its foreign policy options vis-à-vis China.

(p.61) The argument about the influence of domestic factors is based on a simple premise: a close, lasting, and viable partnership between Europe and China does not emerge automatically through trade and economic interdependence. Building a close and sustainable partnership with China will require significant political leadership by European and Chinese decision-makers. But how can this leadership be exercised against the backdrop of an increasingly unfavorable European public opinion vis-à-vis China? How can this be accomplished when European decision-making is hampered by a fragmented and overlapping network of institutions and constrained by the demands of special interest groups, lobbies, and parliamentary politics?

In order to answer these questions, it is pertinent to examine those possibilities and constraints internal to Europe which impact on its China policy. Unlike other analyses of Sino-European relations (see Crossick and Reuter, 2007; also Ross, Tunsjo, and Zhang, 2011), this chapter does not follow a geopolitical approach. The argument is not that geopolitical factors are unimportant, but merely that crucial developments inside Europe—which could have important effects on the possibilities for partnership with China— receive too little scholarly attention.

The challenges are significant. Large sections of the public across European societies harbor considerable misgivings about China. As will be discussed below, a more unfavorable view of China is gaining ground in Europe. This process was exacerbated by the debacle over the torch relay in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as well as Beijing's handling of the riots that rocked Tibet in March 2008. Additional Chinese posturing over European governments' reception of the Dalai Lama and the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo also resonated negatively in Europe.

In addition to the deteriorating public sentiment, the political and foreign policy establishment in Europe remains intensely focused on the continent's immediate neighborhood, the transatlantic alliance, Russia, and Africa. Managing relations with China is still a secondary, albeit essential, priority which continues to receive relatively little attention. This is partially a consequence, as Shambaugh (2008b) has claimed, of the limited expertise on China among continental European universities and foreign ministries (the UK being a notable exception). The implication is not that

Europe lacks officials who are competent to manage their governments' relations with China; many handle their portfolios very capably. It is (p.62) simply to note that Europe does not invest very heavily in China-specific training for their government officials, nor in university-based programs that provide the pool from which these civil servants are drawn. (Shambaugh, 2008b: 165)

If decision-makers in Europe are serious about upgrading their relationship with China, a more focused and sustainable shift in policy, resources, and priorities is required. One of the most important tasks is for European decision-makers to create a constituency of support among the public and special interest groups in order to sustain a long-term partnership with China. In Europe's democratic societies, major cornerstones of foreign policy require public backing. This is true of the process of European integration, the transatlantic alliance, the policy of engagement with Russia, Europe's support for development and humanitarian aid, as well as its commitment to multilateralism. It is also true for policies towards China. Without the creation of such levels of support among the public, it will be difficult to mobilize the resources—in terms of finances, diplomacy, human resources, and political capital—that are necessary for building a more profound partnership with China.

Competing narratives about China's “rise”

International relations (IR) theory is currently grappling with the so-called “rise” of China and the implications this will have for global politics. Many of the discussions focus on China's potential to dislodge—or at least challenge— the US from its pre-eminent position. Jacques 2009 argues that China's rise is both a result and a catalyst of the West's relative decline. Others, taking Europe, India, and other important global players into account, emphasize the advent of multipolarity or even great power competition (Mearsheimer, 2001).

In general terms, much of IR theory treats geopolitical factors and conditions as key determinants of Chinese international behavior, as well as of other countries' engagement with China. A much smaller body of literature is dedicated to examining the role of domestic developments on how key global actors are dealing with an increasingly influential China (see Shambaugh et al., 2008; also Lampton, 2001). This analytical bias towards geopolitics is only in so far problematic, as it distracts from an examination of other—domestic or internal—developments and trends which nonetheless impact heavily on (p.63) foreign policy behavior. As Kastner 2008: 786) notes, “[s]cholars of Chinese foreign policy have increasingly turned to rigorous international relations theory …” (see also Song, 2001). Something similar is true for those who study relations between Europe and China (see Deng, 2008; Kerr and Fei, 2007; Goldstein, 2005).

The growing body of literature on the implications of the “rise” of China for global politics is characterized by two major narratives. On the one side of the debate are those who see China's growing influence in international politics in a positive light, arguing that China is inextricably interested in stability, partnership, and pragmatic international behavior. It needs a “stable international environment” to be able to continue its domestic reforms and development (Jia, 2005: 397). The argument is that China is a status quo power with few interests in taking on the responsibilities—financial, diplomatic, and military—that are currently shouldered by the US. Lanteigne 2005: 145) states that

China's activity strongly suggests a greater emphasis on either status quo preservation or measured evolution of various facets of international order … Beijing has shown little sign that it is willing to pay high costs or take great risks in employing force to improve its standing in the international hierarchy.

It has been argued that China and Europe could be an “emerging axis” in global politics—even if this assessment has proven to be premature (Shambaugh, 2004). Deng 2008: 156) claims that “economic globalization and the realignment in world politics after the cold war have elevated Europe to a matter of prime importance for China's foreign policy,” with the result that the “Sino-EU relationship has witnessed perhaps the most dramatic growth among great-power dyads.” Furthermore, Shambaugh (2008b) has also noted the emergence of a “strategic triangle” between the US, the EU, and China. “As China becomes more involved in the global system, the United States and Europe increasingly interact cooperatively with Beijing on these and other global governance challenges” (Shambaugh, 2008b: 152). Indeed, the increasing number of summits, ties, and exchanges on a growing number of topics between Europe, the US, and China seems to suggest this. However, some doubt can be cast on this argument, as European and American interests are often at odds about how to engage with China.

(p.64) On the other side of the debate are those for whom the rise of China is concomitant with future global instability, as it results from the decline in American power and leadership. From this point of view, China is not a benign partner but a potential—and likely—rival, especially in the global economy and as far as the ability to project hard power is concerned (Mearsheimer, 2001). As Sutter 2008: 10–11) claims, most analysts are not willing to make predictions about relations with China without “major caveats and conditions,” fearing that a “deterioration leading to growing competition and war” remains a possible scenario. Nye 1995: 90–91) has argued that the assumption that the world has moved beyond power politics is highly questionable, claiming that “history shows us that periods of rise and fall of great powers are often times of great instability …” Yet instability does not follow only from changes in the geopolitical constellation. Doubts about the jingoistic traits in Chinese nationalism (see Guang, 2005), the authoritarian nature of its regime, the continuing Chinese military build-up, and Beijing's diplomatic as well as material support for controversial regimes also fuel the uncertainty about China's future role (see Menotti, 2007; Hilsum, 2005). Also, even though it is claimed that Chinese foreign policy is motivated by regime preservation and economic growth (prosperity), Beijing's quest for power, influence, and prestige in international affairs is on the increase (Wang, 2005). Analyzing these factors is equally important to gain a sense of how China's “rise” affects the prospects for global conflict or cooperation.

In this bifurcated narrative about the prospects of China's rise in international politics, it is unclear what role Europe is likely to play. Scott (2007: 27) claims that for Beijing, the EU remains a “multipolar partner” for a future global order in which the US no longer plays the only leading role. Chinese hopes for an order that is non-hegemonic, multipolar, and based on cultural diversity and economic interdependence to shape official and academic perceptions of Europe in China (Shambaugh, 2008a: 128). Yet most of the discussions about China's global role touch on its relations with the US, its Asian neighbors, and—increasingly—Africa. In many scholarly analyses, Europe continues to play a “secondary role” (Yahuda, 1995).

The interesting issue about the optimistic and pessimistic views of China, and its role in the world, is not what is being said but what is being left out. This is especially true of the relations between China and Europe. Given that relatively little attention is spent on examining this relationship, it is often overlooked that Sino-European affairs contain some of the most (p.65) intriguing features of the context in which contemporary foreign-policy-making emerges: the role of fragmented and overlapping networks of governance, the role of political leadership and public opinion, the dominance of economic and commercial interests over diplomacy and foreign policy, as well as the influence of identities and values on foreign affairs. Also, largely unappreciated is the fact that these factors are often inextricably linked and that clear foreign/domestic distinctions are increasingly less viable.

In Europe itself, this blurring of the foreign/domestic dichotomy is particularly visible as far as the process of European integration is concerned. This is a consequence of the increasing enmeshment of national political structures into institutionalized forms of governance at the European level. Nowadays, much of the legislation passed by the parliaments of EU member states follows from obligations to convert European directives into national law. EU member states have pooled their sovereignty to such an extent that a neat domestic/foreign separation is no longer persuasive. The EU and its major member states all have a stance and position on China—sometimes they overlap, but often they do not (see Stumbaum, 2009).

This dilution of multi-level governance works both ways: national issues also influence developments at the European level. The failed French, Dutch, and Irish referenda on the proposals for a European constitution, the mainly national debates for the elections of the European Parliament, and the growing clout of domestic public opinion over future EU enlargement and Turkish membership are cases in point. The effect of this general trend in Europe has been that political decision-makers now enjoy less autonomy and room for maneuvering than was the case only two or three decades ago. European integration was largely an elite project which counted on general but disinterested public support. Yet with increasing influence of European institutions over domestic politics, this “permissive consensus” has waned. This will have consequences for the way the EU as a whole engages with other players around the world: the US, Russia, and also China.

As Cabestan (2007: 135) points out, European states are caught in between wanting to “keep some degree of autonomy in the realm of foreign policy” and needing an EU that can defend Europe's interests vis-à-vis China. So far, the attempts to create a more unified and coherent foreign policy structure for the EU have failed due to a lack of public and elite support in key member states. The EU's China policy is therefore likely to continue to be based on the “smallest common denominator” (Cabestan, 2007) among (p.66) competing national preferences. This background is hardly a starting point for a Europe's stated ambition to upgrade its relations with China to a “strategic partnership.” While Europe has been somewhat successful in gradually and consistently expanding its cooperation with China in numerous fields of “low politics,” it has struggled particularly in matters of “high politics.” As Menotti 2007 elucidates, the proposed lifting of the EU arms embargo on China discussed in 2004–05 quickly became a debacle of EU policy-making.

Herein lies a particular dilemma for Europe's China policy. Political developments internal to Europe influence and constrain the way the EU and its members states can interact with China. In Europe, the formulation of foreign policy has often a lot to do with overlapping institutional competences, parliamentary constellations and coalitions, public opinion, as well as the influence of special interest groups and lobbies. In Europe's liberal parliamentary democracies, these factors cannot be easily disregarded by policy-makers.

Limitations for partnership

In Europe, the development of policy towards China is mediated by a number of factors, actors, and processes which renders the construction of a more solid partnership with Beijing a muddled and complex endeavor. Before going into these in more detail, it is important to consider the main influencing factor for European policy towards China: China's behavior itself.

The importance of Chinese behavior

One of the most important factors for the development of a Sino-European partnership is China's behavior. Much of European policy towards China is a response or reaction to events in China, and here Europe has received seemingly contradictory signals. Despite the gradual integration of China into international diplomacy since the 1970s, its policy-making processes and international behavior remain somewhat opaque and unpredictable. As Lampton 2001: 2) points out, there are “two faces” to Chinese behavior. One face of its behavior is strongly determined by the innermost government elites who continue to enjoy a very high degree of autonomy on matters of foreign policy, strategy, and national security. The other face results from China's increasing participation in international organizations, multilateral and bilateral diplomacy, the professionalization of its foreign policy (p.67) bureaucracy, as well as its increasing adherence to international norms and best practices. Yet “[t]hose who deal with Beijing … must be aware of the potential for abrupt changes arising from a system which is compartmentalized and personalized at the very top” (Lampton, 2001: 2).

European decision-makers have been amply exposed towards these abrupt shifts in policy. One of the more recent examples has been the cancellation of the annual EU-China summit in 2008, following the meeting of French President Nicolas Sarkozy with the Dalai Lama. In consequence, France, which had been courted by Beijing prior to the meeting, was shunned by Beijing. Something similar occurred with Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel's reception of the Dalai Lama at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin late 2007. Beijing froze diplomatic contacts with Germany as a response to what it interpreted as unwelcome German interference in its internal affairs. In both cases, France and Germany managed to patch up their differences with China, either by publicly reaffirming their commitment to the One China policy or by distancing themselves from further contact with the Dalai Lama.

These episodes reveal two things. First, it epitomizes the European difficulties in balancing often contradictory demands of domestic politics and pressures with the necessities of foreign policy and Realpolitik. Both Merkel and Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama not to annoy China, but rather to cater to domestic constituencies who feel strongly about human rights and Europe's support for dissidents. Merkel's portrayal of her public persona as a “courageous” politician who does not shy away from meeting with regime critics in Russia and China was, and continues to be, popular among the German electorate. Having underestimated the severity of the Chinese response, both Merkel and Sarkozy reacted quickly to pressure from business groups which wanted to avoid suffering economic consequences. The European dilemma between its advocacy for human rights, the rule of law, and democracy on the one hand and its necessity to benefit from China's economic growth on the other hand is clearly visible.

Second, Europe's China policy has been highly reactive to developments in China. All European efforts are doomed to fail unless Beijing is actually willing to engage both European states and the EU in such a partnership. This precondition is far from given. Despite assurances to the contrary, Beijing might well want to avoid any entanglements which could hinder, restrain, or reduce its foreign policy options and its room for maneuver. After all, it is not unreasonable to believe that China's decision-makers regard their own (p.68) country as a great global power on par with the US and not merely regional players such as Europe. So why should China bind itself closely to Europe when flexibility in alliances, partnerships, and support bases is crucial to China's growing global influence? Also, Beijing has skillfully played off different European countries and the EU against each other, which has given Beijing a high level of leverage.

In his tome on Chinese foreign policy, Sutter 2008: 341) reckons that Beijing's take on the merits of partnership with Europe is much less positive than is often assumed:

… the European powers and the EU were seen by many in China as too weak, divided, and dependent on the United States to allow Europe to become an active great power in international relations … [They] also seemed to share the same political values and strategic objectives as the United States in areas sensitive for the Chinese administration … Even the positive development of European-Chinese economic relations was marred from China's perspective by numerous European efforts to curb rapidly growing Chinese exports to European markets, to join with the United States in complaining about alleged unfair Chinese trade practices, and to refuse strong Chinese efforts to gain recognition for China as a “market economy” under WTO guidelines.

It is therefore prudent for European decision-makers not to take Beijing's interest in building a consolidated partnership with Europe for granted. There may be generally positive, yet amorphous, Chinese views of Europe's global role that derive from Beijing's own hopes for an international (and “multipolar”) order which is more amenable to China (see Shambaugh, 2008a). But these might not be salient enough to withstand major disagreements over trade and other political and security matters. In fact, as Zhu (2008: 149) claims, there is “a lot of wishful thinking” about Europe, especially in Chinese academic circles. If Europe is intent on pursuing its ambitions for a “strategic partnership” with China, its decision-makers will have to make important choices: to what extent should they push China on the rule of law, Tibet, democracy, human rights, the protection of intellectual property rights, climate change, and its trade practices among many others? They will have to strike a fine balance between the internal European demands (on human rights or protection from Chinese competition) and Beijing's demands. Given that Europe, unlike the US, lacks any strategic or security commitments in East Asia, European decision-makers have been able to take “some risks in (p.69) order to deepen their ‘engagement’ with China” (Menotti, 2007: 4). Yet building a viable partnership with China will entail that more risks—in particular, important domestic political risks—will have to be shouldered by European decision-makers. Key developments in Europe mitigate against the possibility that sustained leadership advocating closer relations with Beijing is likely to be exercised by European decision-makers.

The difficulty of building alliances

In international relations, alliances are among the strongest forms of international partnership. The example of the transatlantic alliance is an interesting case in point. The bonds with the US are Europe's most important foreign policy factor. In addition to the vast economic importance of trade, the US and NATO remain crucial to Europe's security and defense arrangements, as well as its diplomacy. Europe's own ability to promote its vision of “effective multilateralism” and regional integration is severely impeded when it is not backed by the US. Most importantly, however, is the fact that this alliance has been institutionalized and counts on significant public support, thus sheltering it from the usual shifts in preferences and interests that characterize day-to-day politics. All policy disputes notwithstanding, large sections of the European public acknowledge that the transatlantic alliance is vital to their society, especially since there is no feasible alternative to it. The cultural, historical, and ideational links between Europe and the US have facilitated the lasting saliency of the transatlantic alliance. As the importance of historical memory wanes and as the demographic composition of Europe and the US changes, it is not unlikely that the alliance will be tested further.

The legacy of the transatlantic alliance holds some important lessons for the development of a partnership between Europe and China. The preconditions for partnership are both encouraging and problematic. On the one hand, they are encouraging because Europe and China do not share common borders, because they have enjoyed largely friendly relations for the past 30 years, because they lack any geostrategic interest in each other's regions, and because they need each other in economic and commercial terms. Moreover, as is repeatedly pointed out in the geopolitically inspired literature, Europe is often seen in China as “symbolizing the ‘trends of the times’” (Shambaugh, 2008a: 129), with its embrace of economic globalization and regional integration; its enmeshment in global governance and multilateralism; as well as (p.70) its desire to promote cultural diversity, peace, sustainable development, and socially balanced economic growth. Only Europe's ready acceptance of curtailments to national sovereignty is anathema to Chinese views. In general terms, there are strong Chinese hopes that Europe could become a key Chinese partner in a world which is less dominated by American influence.

On the other hand, they are problematic because historical, cultural, and ideational bonds do not tie both regions together. The relationship between Europe and China is dominated by trade and economic need; Europeans and Chinese share little in terms of values, identities, and common historical experiences. The dominance of trade in Sino-European affairs renders the relationship open to external shocks and arbitrary manipulation. Beijing is skilful in connecting business interests with political demands, playing one EU member off against another. China has been adept at this game, thereby weakening Europe's bargaining positions either for economic or diplomatic gains. Goldstein 2005: 160–161) reckons that

[b]ecause China recognized that a united Europe with a common foreign policy remained a goal rather than a reality, it hedged its bets by simultaneously cultivating separate partnerships with Europe's three leading states (France, Britain, and Germany) as well as with the supranational institutions of the EU.

The above-mentioned examples of Chinese displeasure about German and French meetings with the Dalai Lama and the fallout over Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize are cases in point. The complex and multi-level structure of EU and member state policy-making, as well as the incoherence of European interests, make this possible.

The EU and its major member states have actively—albeit sometimes hesitantly—pursued closer relations with Beijing. The creation of Sino-European dialogues over human rights, legal affairs, environmental protection, and climate change has complemented efforts to strengthen cultural and diplomatic ties. These efforts have had varying degrees of success. Starting with the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s (1964 in the case of France), Sino-European relations have become significantly closer. This increasing closeness and interdependence between both sides, however, are still relatively thin and recent. The very nature of Sino-European relations as a “secondary relationship” has enabled European decision-makers to enjoy significant autonomy in making China policy. With only marginal public interest in China, decision-makers were in a position to set the policy (p.71) agenda and frame national preferences without much parliamentary or public debate. Yet with growing ties between Europe and China, and increasing recognition of China's economic prowess and diplomatic influence by the European public, this facilitating context is likely to vanish.

The demands for leadership and risk-taking

Political leadership is a key factor which is often overlooked in the analysis of foreign policy. The reductionist and structurally deterministic tendencies common to numerous IR theories have led to an underestimation of the extent to which leaders are able to frame national interests, foreign policy options, and public opinion. Rather than treating national interests as givens, they should be seen as notions that are open to definition and political contestation. Realist, liberal, and institutionalist theories hold a mechanistic view of political leadership. From their vantage point, leaders pursue, some more effectively than others, interests—national interests. This leaves out an important dimension of leadership: the ability to frame the parameters of acceptable foreign policy options, to influence the very definition of national interests, and to build support among elites and the public.

Much is to be gained by looking more closely at the opportunities and constraints decision-makers encounter in the realm of foreign policy. Examples of personal leadership in foreign policy abound: Charles de Gaulle's recognition of the PRC in 1964, Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China, Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing, and John Major's support for democratic reforms in Hong Kong in the 1990s— even at the expense of upsetting China—are cases in point. None of these moves was preordained or determined by Realpolitik or economic necessity. In fact, it was doubtful at the time whether France's unilateral recognition of Beijing would upset its ultimately infinitely more important relations with Washington. Brandt's Ostpolitik was so controversial that it almost led to his downfall in a 1972 parliamentary vote of no confidence (Fischer, 2005). Major's support for the democratic reforms proposed by Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten encountered widespread opposition among Foreign Office diplomats (Patten, 1998).

As is revealed by these examples, the exercise of leadership involves taking risks. Leadership refers to more than the administration or management of political processes. The scholarly literature on leadership is characterized by key distinctions and taxonomies (see Helms, 2005; Hargrove and Owens, 2003; (p.72) Stogdill, 1981; Burns, 1978): leadership as a personality trait, leadership as an outcome of power and institutional access, leadership as visionary idealism, leadership as the ability to either facilitate negotiations or transform societies. Yet a crucial element of leadership—especially in the context of foreign policy—is risk-taking. In Europe's liberal democracies, leadership involves taking risks. Political decision-makers who shy away from investing their political capital and personal prestige in support of a particular foreign policy initiative find themselves easily constrained by parliamentary constellations, demands of special interest groups, economic pressures, and the whim of public opinion. As Hagan 1993: 3) points out, the definition of foreign policy is “inherently political,” as domestic factors weigh in on foreign policy-making and domestic parliamentary contestation influences the parameters of acceptable foreign policy behavior. In many circumstances, decision-makers enjoy significant autonomy in the realm of foreign policy. This is due to the fact that the public often cares little about foreign policy as long as it does not interfere with more important bread-and-butter issues. Also, there is often more ideological and practical overlap between political parties over matters of foreign relations than is usual in domestic politics. On the most important foreign policy dimension in Europe—European integration—both the public as well as political, business, and media elites have largely reached a supportive consensus. More than other matters of politics, foreign policy and national security often tend to be treated as matters of state, rather than issues of ideological and political division.

However, this level of support for broad tenets of foreign policy cannot be taken for granted. Even well-entrenched foreign policy traditions are affected by the ebb and flow of public and elite support. For instance, support for Europe's transatlantic partnership with US suffered much under the administration of George W. Bush. Something similar is occurring with the process of European integration. The “permissive consensus” enabling an elite-driven management of the integration process is quickly disappearing. Repeated setbacks in national referenda on European treaties, as well as the recent results from the 2009 elections for the European Parliament, hint at growing disaffection among the public. Many Europeans are anxious about EU enlargement and the scope of supranational interventionism by European institutions. They are also concerned about the inability of the EU's single market to shelter them from economic insecurity and fierce foreign competition.

(p.73) Three major social and political developments in Europe are likely to emerge as significant stumbling blocks for efforts to upgrade the continent's relationship with China: the post-materialist trend towards issue-based politics; the increasingly negative image of China among the European public (public opinion); and the inability to develop a more coherent and streamlined institutional network for the conduct and formulation of foreign policy

The effects of issue-based politics

As Inglehart 2008 and Crouch 2008 illustrate, there is ample evidence for profound changes in European societies in general and in values in particular (see also Kalb, 2003). Inglehart 2008: 131) identifies a “broader cultural shift from survival values to self-expression values.” To some extent, this shift has been accompanied by increasing polarization among political parties and— in some polities—to a fragmentation of the party system itself (Grande, 2008). Mair 1997: 47) claims that “political mobilization … now appears more easily reflected in the ebb and flow of single-interest organizations.”

The emergence of issue-based politics in European societies has led to fundamental changes in politics. Some of the major cleavages that characterized European politics (see Lipset and Rokkan, 1967) have become increasingly less relevant: ideology, church-state relations, rural-urban divisions, and class. The decline of these cleavages has been accompanied by a fragmentation and decline in the importance of political parties and trade unions, as well as a noticeable decline in their membership (see Grande, 2008). In general terms, the growing saliency of issue-based politics is a result of Europe's “post-materialist” societies. With the success of European political and economic systems to satisfy the material needs and welfare protection of its citizens, the traditional issues of politics—jobs, housing, consumption—have lost ground. Only recently have fears over unemployment, cuts in welfare spending, and the effects of global financial crisis revitalized these traditional issues (Inglehart, 2008). These traditional subjects of political contestation have been replaced by welfare, lifestyle, and self-expression issues: the quality of education and public services, environmental protection, consumer protection and product safety, immigration, international solidarity, the protection of human rights and civil liberties, individualism and personal choice, as well as attitudes towards globalization and European integration.

(p.74) While this trend is not in and of itself problematic, it does have important repercussions for the ability of governments to maneuver. It also narrows the ground for the exercise of political leadership. The gradual collapse of traditional political parties has led to more fragmented and unstable coalition governments in a number of European countries, thereby reducing autonomy over the conduct of foreign affairs and enhancing the influence of parliamentary opposition over the policy-making process. The emergence of weak multi-party coalition or minority governments in the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Italy illustrate this trend. Even Britain is no longer immune from this development, with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in power for the first time since World War II. The consolidation of a five-party Bundestag in Germany has also diminished the ability of the traditional linchpins of power—the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD)—to form coalitions with a single party only. The ensuing constellations of a CDU-SPD “grand coalition” and the uneasy current CDU-FDP coalition mirror similar circumstances in other European countries, and the resurgence of the Greens is likely to further this trend. As Hagan (1993: 6) reveals in his study of the role of political opposition in foreign policy, weak coalitions diminish the ability of governments to “commit to a course of action in foreign affairs.” Instead, foreign policy has been drawn into increasingly complex processes of inter-party bargaining and negotiation. Weak or unstable coalitions also diminish the legitimacy of a government in international affairs as their representativeness is put into question. The “lame duck” Czech caretaker government holding the presidency of the Council of the EU (January-July 2009) was a poignant example, as is the caretaker government that has run Belgium since 2010.

Also problematic for national and EU decision-makers are the growing pressures for protectionism in Europe, state intervention in the economy, an end to EU enlargement, and restrictions to inter-EU labor migration. These issues have been exacerbated by the impact of the global financial crisis on Europe, but have been emerging gradually onto the political agenda since the early 1990s. The key elements of the EU's success—the single market and the ability of the EU to exercise significant influence in its immediate neighborhood through enlargement negotiations—are therefore becoming politically contested and are no longer supported by a “permissive consensus.”

(p.75) The gap left open by the decline of traditional political parties and trade unions has been plugged by a concomitant growth in NGOs, civil society organizations, and special interest groups. These have established themselves closely at the local, national, and European levels, exercising often significant influence over policy-making with little transparency or democratic accountability. Given their access to power, and their often considerable economic and financial strength, it is not surprising that European foreign policy has increasingly incorporated single issues and sectoral interests into the diplomatic agenda.

The autonomy of decision-makers on matters of foreign policy is delimited by those group actors who favor an expansion of ties with China (business lobbies), those who seek protection from Chinese exports (trade unions, small businesses), and those who demand a proactive European policy on non-economic matters of concern (human rights groups, NGOs, environmental movements). The growth in these new political players is setting novel pressures on the development of European policy towards China.

In stark contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, European diplomacy (both EU and national) and meetings with Chinese officials now contain a range of “post-material issues”: environmental protection and global climate change, human rights, the rule of law, democratization and good governance, labor standards and product safety, among many others. Rather than facilitating engagement with China, these issues have often made contacts with Beijing more difficult and complex. Chinese and European views sometimes differ sharply over these issues, and a more influential China will be less likely to be “lectured” by European governments. More dangerously for European foreign policy is Chinese cynicism about Europe's espousal of human rights and environmental protection on the one hand, and its need for access to the Chinese market on the other. Beijing is also concerned about the growing calls for protectionism in Europe.

The challenge of public opinion

The second development in Europe which acts as a constraint on leadership in foreign policy-making is public opinion. While public opinion is not a determinant of foreign policy (rarely do European politicians get elected on a foreign policy mandate), it is nonetheless an important enabling or limiting factor for it. Public opinion plays a key role in enabling or constraining (p.76) the development of a European partnership with China. The evolution of European public perceptions of China is highly contingent on Chinese behavior, and on the way European leaders frame the interests and policy options vis-à-vis China. As indicated by recent surveys, European public sentiment towards China has become more negative:

Europeans also have become much more critical of China. Majorities today express unfavorable views in Italy 61%), the Czech Republic (58%), Germany (54%) and France (51%)… The trend is decidedly downward in many of the European countries that were surveyed in earlier Global Attitudes studies. Since 2005, favorable ratings for China have fallen 18 points in Spain, 16 points in Great Britain, 12 points in Germany, and 11 points in France …

China's economic growth clearly troubles many in the advanced economies of the world. Concerns are particularly widespread in Western Europe, where majorities in Italy (65%), France (64%) and Germany (55%) say this development is bad for their countries. And these concerns are on the rise. In Germany, the proportion saying that Chinese economic growth hurts at home has risen from 38% in 2005 to 55% today. Similarly, Britons today are divided over whether China's growth helps (45%) or hurts (41%). But just two years ago, more saw it as good for Britain than bad by a 56% to 31% margin …

China's military power is broadly viewed with concern. Roughly two-thirds of those interviewed in the United States (68%) and Canada (66%) say China's growing military power is a bad thing for their countries. This view is even more widely held in France (84%) and Germany (77%), as well as by substantial majorities in Great Britain and Italy. (Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2007: 40–44)

The deterioration of European public sentiment vis-à-vis China poses a grave challenge for the prospects for partnership between Europe and China. In an increasingly negative environment, the potential for leaders to harness electoral, personal, or political gains from compromising with Beijing are limited. The incentives for leadership on Sino-European partnership are thus reduced. Rather, politicians are likely to rewarded to “being tough” with Beijing, especially on matters of principle (human rights) or key electoral concern (jobs). The outcry in Europe over Beijing's handling of the 2008 Tibet riots, the Olympic Games (especially the torch relay), the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xioabo, and the arrest of dissident artist Ai Weiwei illustrated the corrosive influence of negative public opinion on Sino-European relations. Major heads of government were suddenly faced with mounting (p.77) public pressure to not attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. If public opinion is mobilized, the room for decision-makers autonomy is greatly reduced. Only in circumstances in which decision-makers can set the tone of political debate or encounter a disinterested public are major policy shifts and foreign policy forays likely.

Institutional incoherence

Europe's incoherent institutional structure is the third development in Europe which constrains the possibilities for leadership in foreign policy-making. In Europe there are multiple actors and multiple levels of governance, with nation-states and the EU each claiming specific prerogatives. In addition to this multitude of actors, national interests diverge often sharply, and policy-making sometimes lacks coherence. This understanding of the institutional context, however, is too simplistic. In fact, the EU and its member states have come a long way in adopting common positions towards China. The evolution of the EU from a technocratic supranational institution dealing with trade and economic integration into a fully fledged global player has been accompanied by an increasingly unwieldy institutional structure. So has the EU's expansion to 27 member states. Yet the internal European debates about institutional reform and “constitutionalization” resonate only partially on the prospects for Sino-European partnership. Even with 27 member states and with an unreformed institutional structure, the EU has been able to reach common positions on China.

Rather, the challenge is, firstly, that China is not unanimously seen as a key priority requiring European action and, secondly, that any upgrading of the relationship with China to encompass “high politics” is likely to be resisted by key EU member states. As Cabestan (2007: 135) notes, “China does not have the same degree of importance for, say, Poland, Malta, or Greece as for France, the UK, and Germany.” Yet it is the latter that have the highest degree of exposure in China and are most keen on expanding their ties with Beijing. Those member states which are most adamant about partnership with China are, however, caught in a dilemma. They would like the EU to play a more unified and coherent supporting role of their own foreign policy towards China while guarding their prominent position as visible European powers abroad. This is especially true of France and the UK, which already have a more intense relationship with China due to historical reasons, (p.78) as well as their role as nuclear-armed veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council. Apart from the fact that moves to curtail national sovereignty over foreign policy face considerable public opposition, British and French, and to some degree German, decision-makers see little merit in reducing their own clout in foreign policy-making for the sake of a greater EU role in global affairs.

Yet Europe is in need of forging new institutional links with China which go beyond trade and economic exchange. As the example of the transatlantic alliance illustrates, sustained partnership needs to be built on institutional foundations which can withstand the cycles of day-to-day politics. The dominance of trade in Sino-European relations leaves Europe exposed to pressure from Beijing. China is in a position to leverage European diplomacy by granting it access to its lucrative market or shutting it out from it. It is therefore essential that new forms of cooperation are explored and solidified through institutionalized cooperation. Security and defense cooperation, parliamentary exchanges, and continuing cooperation in multilateral fora are required to diminish the Chinese economic leverage.


The key argument of this chapter is twofold. First, internal developments in Europe matter. Second, a viable Sino-European partnership is unlikely to emerge, so long as European decision-makers are not willing or able to exercise leadership in this matter. Whereas European decision-makers are hardly in a position to influence Chinese behavior, they are able to shape their own foreign policy preferences, and consolidate public and elite support. Herein lies the task of leadership and risk-taking. Decision-makers will be required to invest personal, political, and electoral capital to foster support for a sustained European commitment towards partnership with China. The potential for this to happen is constrained by the rise of issue-politics, the deterioration of public opinion, and institutional incoherence.

The definition of clear European objectives for the emergence of a viable, sustainable, and long-term partnership with China is constrained by internal developments in Europe. A close partnership with Beijing does not emerge automatically and cannot be forged on the basis of economic interactions alone. Increasing trade and economic ties may be a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for partnership. The ambition in Europe to upgrade (p.79) its ties with Beijing to a more prominent level requires political will, strategic foresight, and a determination of policy-makers in Europe to agree on common interests. The exercise of leadership by European decision-makers is thus an essential component for mobilizing public opinion and special interest support. It is also necessary for forging institutional links with Beijing which will allow for the creation of new common fields of interest beyond trade.

An assessment of the prospects for partnership between Europe and China needs to go beyond the geopolitically oriented analyses that characterize much of the scholarly literature on Sino-European relations. As the formulation of foreign policy by EU member states as well as the EU become more politicized, it is only likely that political contestation and polarization among the public about how to engage with China are likely to increase. (p.80)