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CHINA-EU: After the honeymoon is over, the reality sets in
Publication Date : 24-03-2014
Klaus Ebermann, the former European Union ambassador to China, says that he senses China's efforts to improve ties between China and the European Union, which he believes will be boosted when President Xi Jinping visits the trading bloc.
In the next 10 years there will be as much competition as there is collaboration between the EU and China, something that is normal, he says. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have just got to do it."
During his state visit to Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, Xi is due to visit the EU headquarters in Brussels, a first for a Chinese president.
Ebermann, now an academic, says Xi's visit is another great boost to bilateral relations after both sides held a summit in Beijing last November, the 16th since 1998. The next will take place in Brussels this year.
"So we have a lot of reasons to have a rosy picture of our relations because new political will has been injected," Ebermann says. "We are notorious, in the positive sense, for trading and technology and knowledge, which is exactly what China needs. So it's a fruitful relationship."
Ebermann says he has become more critical since quitting his job as a diplomat and public servant. But he still believes the China-EU 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation signed at the summit in November is generally positive.
"I take a more critical view as an academic," he says.
At the summit four areas of collaboration were identified: peace and security, prosperity, sustainable development and people-to-people exchanges.
"We are each other's largest or second-largest trade partner," Ebermann says. "It's a win-win document and both sides have interests in such a time frame."
However, how to implement such an ambitious agenda is still a challenge, he says. Since 2003 when both sides agreed to set up a comprehensive strategic partnership, both have organized summits. There are about 60 platforms for official dialogue, although not all are active.
"The annual summits are good and there will be more," Ebermann says.
As one who regards himself as a skeptical optimist, he thinks the problem is that the dialogue is piecemeal.
"There is a lot of substance that forms the strategic dialogue. But that requires two things. First you need to get away from fragmentation; you have to see the whole picture. And, most important of all, you have to build it on mutual trust and mutual respect."
When Ebermann was the EU's ambassador in Beijing more than 10 years ago, the relationship between the two sides was extremely cordial. Brussels supported Beijing's admission to the World Trade Organization. In more recent times the two have sometimes been at loggerheads, particular because the EU has resisted China's push to be recognized as a market economy.
Nevertheless, Ebermann says trust between the two has improved as they have got to know one another better.
"During my time there was a special period - I would call it a honeymoon - because the EU stood very much for trade and economic relations and less for political issues."
Negotiations for China's accession to the WTO were extremely difficult, he says. "But this process helped the machineries come to know each other extremely well."
There was close cooperation between China and Europe in trade matters, WTO matters, economic affairs, science and technologies, he says.
"I am talking about broad trust. For me a strategic partnership requires broad trust and respect, not just in technical matters such as trade. It should go much beyond that."
Considering the proliferation of agreements now in force in Asia and worldwide, Ebermann thinks trade agreements, bilateral or regional, will always be a second-best solution.
"The best solution is a kind of Doha Round development agenda including trade, agriculture and development. I would like to see a much higher profile, visibility and commitment of the EU in these questions.
"For me, a strategic relationship is our starting point and would have to encompass such broader thinking, more ambitious thinking, the vision thing, not just a short-term act."
He also points to the cultural differences between the EU and China.
"Chinese do business with people they trust and know. And once there is that trust, they don't necessarily need a contract. In Europe international affairs and trade, in particular, are in a radically different order. You have to write down all the details of the contract and if one party doesn't comply they go to the courts."
In a relationship of trust, Ebermann believes it is dangerous to expect results in just two or three years, which he sees as the medium term.
"You have to see the longer picture and know where you want to go."
On economic reform in China, Ebermann thinks everything is heading in the right direction, even if the hand of the state is still a brake on far too many things. "If you make this simpler, if you withdraw state supervision from a number of key areas in the economies, that should be very beneficial to China's economic performance. And it's good to see there is a clampdown on one of the most inherent problems of the political system, which is corruption."
In some quarters last year, Premier Li Keqiang's visit to eastern and central Europe after the China-EU summit last November was criticized, but Ebermann considers China's activities to get the balance right in its relationships with the EU and its member states as normal geopolitics, "totally professional, understandable and what I myself would have done as well".
"On the one hand, China has painfully realized sometimes that the EU has its limits in foreign policy and international relations other than economic and technical sector issues," which means if the EU is not strong enough to deliver dialogue on foreign policy issues, bilateral dialogues come naturally.
"The other point is that China has very limited investment in Europe. Compared with highly competitive local markets in Germany, the UK or France, it's easier to get into the single market in Eastern Europe. "
Although he welcomes China's reforms since the new leadership took office last year, he feels foreign affairs need more attention."I would like to see a bit more development on international relations, what China's role in global affairs is, how China see its role in the region, not just relations with big powers such as the US but beyond."