How are Sino-European relations doing today? “Rather well, since you ask.” This could have been President Xi Jinping’s reply to a hypothetical question he could have been asked during his recent visit to Brussels. For slightly over ten years since the launch of the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, links between the two giants are wider and deeper than most would have predicted when they signed the agreement. In fact, these links have moved relations between Beijing and Brussels beyond top-level grand declarations. Today, expert-led, mutually beneficial bilateral dialogues and programmes are the basis upon which Brussels and Beijing are building trust and long-lasting ties. In other words, the EU and China have a mature relationship.
Few partners can match the network of dialogues underpinning Sino-European relations. The dialogue architecture bringing them together covers over sixty areas, from Latin America or youth affairs to customs cooperation or nuclear non-proliferation. For the most part, these dialogues do not make the headlines. Most of them cover dry, technical issues with little appeal for the general public. Moreover, there has been little attempt to publicise them. This is logical when we consider that the goal of most of the dialogues is to make Sino-European relations work, rather than to score political points. The dialogues therefore require discretion to achieve their objectives.
Given their narrow goals, it should be no surprise that sectorial experts and key officials are the main participants and fundamental drivers of dialogues involving Brussels and Beijing. Certainly, a president-level annual summit and high-level strategic, economic and people-to people dialogues provide the basis for the Sino-European bilateral partnership. They underpin its conceptual framework. But experts and officials with relevant knowledge are the heart and blood allowing ideas to flow and be transformed into actual substance.
The bilateral Economic and Financial Dialogue is a case in point. Starting from 2005, Chinese and European delegations have been meeting on an annual basis. Chinese delegations include representatives from relevant ministries and regulators. Meeting with their European counterparts, they have been discussing technical, sector-specific issues such as the entry into force of the Basel III Capital Adequacy Accord, the launch of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone or convergence with International Financial Reporting Standards. China and the EU therefore have a regular dialogue in which to discuss key developments affecting the financial sector in both countries and beyond. Importantly, this dialogue is relatively free from direct interference by top government leaders, who seem to be ready to delegate on those who work on finance-related matters on a daily basis.
Critics may argue that dialogue does not necessarily lead to policies and programmes affecting the lives of ordinary citizens. In the case of the EU and China, however, experts and officials have been ready to talk the talk but also to walk the walk. Convening over sixty regular dialogues, most of which look rather obscure to the casual observer, is an enormous logistical task. Consequently, it would not make sense to hold so many dialogues simply for their participants to accumulate air miles. Indeed, dialogues between Brussels and Beijing have produced practical outcomes.
Going back to the example of finance, recent reforms in China’s financial sector have been influenced by discussions with the EU. Meanwhile, thanks to this dialogue access for European banks and insurers to the Chinese market has been smoother than it would otherwise have been. Furthermore, convergence in accounting standards has been facilitated by Sino-European talks. All these issues have a direct impact on Chinese and European citizens.
Sceptics may point out that finance is a very specific area in which the depth of transnational links makes implementation of actual agreements necessary. Yet, this example is replicated in other areas in which transnational cooperation might not be as crucial or straightforward. These include higher education, space technology or even the environment and climate change, an area in which the EU has several programmes running on the ground in China.
The expert-led nature of contemporary Sino-European relations does not mean that top-level summits and declarations are not important anymore. They remain relevant, insofar good high-level relations create a more cordial atmosphere for Chinese and European experts talking to other.
Similarly, problems such as the EU’s arms embargo, its failure to grant China market status or Chinese companies’ intellectual property violations are not going to suddenly disappear due to better working relations between Brussels and Beijing. These are highly politicised issues that need to be addressed by top leaders in order to increase mutual trust.
However, there should also be recognition of the extent to which links between China and the EU have strengthened thanks to their institutionalisation in a web of dialogues with practical outcomes. Beijing’s recent EU policy paper rightly lays out a number of broad and specific areas on which bilateral cooperation can and should improve. Learning from the available experience in areas in which well-functioning cooperation already exists would be a good starting point.
Ultimately, the EU and China are never going to have a dispute-free relationship. Even those two closest of partners, the US and the EU itself, have disagreements from time to time. Yet, focusing on the many ways in which European and Chinese experts are talking to each other and collaborating today is helpful to understand the depth of links between Brussels and Beijing today.
Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of European and International Stusies and an Associate of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.