The relationship with the EU in this era of dynamic change was sufficiently important enough for the Chinese Central Government to issue its first formal policy paper on the EU in 2003. In the foreword to this document, it stated, "Despite its difficulties and challenges ahead, the European integration process is irreversible and the EU will play an increasingly important role in both regional and international affairs."
During the period in which Wen has been the key figure on the Chinese side, there has been a sense in which the EU and China are unavoidable partners, and the main phrase has been "strategic partnership," something that was in fact agreed to as the framework in 2003. When the EU revised its strategy toward China in 2006, the document announcing this was simply titled, EU and China: Closer Partners, Growing Responsibilities.
Even so, with issues over the failure by the EU to grant China market economy status, and its refusal to lift the EU arms embargo, there were often moments of deep frustration. This is a relationship that has become larger, more complex and more necessary. But it has never been an easy one to manage, not least because of the amount of change on both sides and the dynamic context in which both operate.
The main area in which to assess the relationship, however, shouldn't be at the higher political level. What the February communiqué recognizes, in some detail, and what will be at the heart of the summit in Brussels in late September will be the practical ways in which both work with each other. There, the story has been overwhelmingly positive. In terms of trade, this has risen dramatically. The EU and China invest more in each other than ever before. Chinese investment in the EU was negligible in 2002. It is now becoming much more prominent, with key investments in the last few years in Swedish automaker Volvo and British utility group Thames Water, and smaller projects across almost all member states of the EU. People-to-people contact has erupted, with barely a school or college in Europe or China without some links to partners in each other. Tourist numbers to and fro have also increased dramatically. And students continue to come in from China to Europe in large numbers, along with a steady increase the other way.
The deeper cooperation is probably where both sides are keenest to achieve something. The legacy of the last decade has been to set up the possibilities now for much more detailed cooperation in areas of mutual concern. These are energy, the environment and sustainability. From the experience of the last few years, both sides are now much clearer about where the problems are. They have a more pragmatic understanding of what they can do with each other. They are in the position at least of knowing what they want. They no longer harbor unrealistic expectations which might end up disappointing them both.
European leaders consistently say they want to enjoy good relations with China, and that they welcome China's deeper integration and involvement in the global economy and global affairs. But for many, there might be a slight resistance to the idea that they now need to see China as a truly equal party, and in many ways a more economically powerful and necessary one. They perhaps fail to have the vision to see the day when China will become a major innovator, and when it will also become a place where many people from Europe might wish to live and work, servicing the need for skilled labor in some sectors and some parts of China.
Wen's achievement in the last decade has been to maintain this critical relationship in periods when it was under stress, and to ensure that it did not go off track. This has not been an easy task, when one thinks of the changes in the international environment economically, and the internal changes within the EU. The EU that he started to deal with representing China a decade ago was different from that which exists now. In maintaining positive links, his contribution has been a significant one. The EU has sometimes been a frustrating and complex interlocutor. But the long list of mutual interests and projects which was produced in February, and will almost certainly be duplicated and perhaps even added to this September, is only testimony to the fact that this work was worth it. Wen will be a hard act to follow, and for his efforts over the last decade, the EU leadership will almost certainly want to say a big, and pretty heartfelt, thank you.
The author is director of the China Studies Center at Sydney University and team leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network
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