High-ranking politicians came together in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the European Union's various strategic partnerships. The one for which they were likely to grant most space on the table is that with China.
How great is Europe's partnership with China?
They are calling it an unprecedented meeting. Not because it is the first time strategic partnerships have featured on an EU agenda, but because they have never before been deemed important enough to call together both heads of government and foreign ministers at one and the same time. And although the bloc's relations with India, Brazil and Russia will get an airing, the main focus will be firmly set upon China, which is growing at a rampant rate.
There is no doubt that the partnership is a complex one and that China poses a major foreign policy challenge for Europe over the coming years. The two are already successful trade partners and there is considerable scope for cooperation in Africa and central Asia. That said, there are also some problems. And they come, to a certain extent, from the officially undefined nature of the term 'strategic partnership'.
When the premier of the People's Republic of China, Wen Jiabao offered his definition, he said it signified "long-term and stable cooperation" which transcends the differences in ideology and social system. He further referred to the two sides working to "expand converging interests and seek common ground on the major issues while shelving differences on the minor ones," to equal-footings, mutual benefits, respect and trust and to win-wins.
And there has been a certain amount of win-winning. China has invested substantially in some member states, and provided a lucrative export market for others, most notably Germany, while the EU has continued to grant China wide access to its consumers.
Mercedes Benz has found a market for its cars in China
But transcending the ideology gap has been altogether more difficult. As Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies told Deutsche Welle, the EU had been hoping for a partner which shared its own standards of domestic reform and foreign policy.
"At this moment, the EU is at a critical junction," he said. "In the last years the policy has been guided by the idea that it could combine economic policy with an influence on social and political transition, but China does not always move in the way we want, so now we're having second thoughts."
Hence the meeting. Holslag imagines member states will be divided in their wishes for a future face of bilateral co-operation, with some urging a prudent and pragmatic approach and others pushing to hurry Beijing into opening up its services market and make greater headway on democracy.
Knowing me, knowing you
Whatever in-house strategy the bloc decides on, it has to send a message of clarity and coherence. Something which has been lacking up until now.
"The gestures were never backed with support from individual member states," Holslag said, "and were not rooted in a broad European consensus about how to implement them."
Another part of the problem is just how poorly Europe knows the country with which it is in partnership, strategic or otherwise. Alice Richards of the China program at the European Council on Foreign Relations puts that down to the revolving door system at EU institutions.
"New diplomats come in for a couple of years and then leave," Richards told Deutsche Welle. "In China foreign ministry officials assigned, say to Latvia, will spend their entire careers between the Latvia desk and the foreign ministry in Latvia. They will know the language and the country."
China has a long way to go on human rights
The very nature of the Chinese regime makes it more difficult for outsiders to become familiar with its black box of decision making. And from Beijing's perspective there is a sense that the less the EU wants to know about it, the better. Richards says that besides the obvious importance of trade, what China sees as a positive in its relations with Brussels is the fact that it does not interfere on such issues as human or religious rights, Taiwan or the lifting of the arms embargo.
The tricky issue of human rights
Which is not to say they are not on the European radar. Somewhere. On human rights in particular, individual member states might grumble, but they have been reluctant to stick their necks out, preferring instead to leave it to the Commission to deal with the issue.
But Jonathan Holslag doesn't think the EU, which ultimately remains a loose coalition of 27 nations each with their own interests, even has the necessary might to make any genuine progress on human rights.
"As far as China is concerned, Europe cannot be the same kind of international actor as the US," he said. "Even if it wanted to be assertive, it wouldn't be able to control the escalations in diplomatic interactions that would follow."
What's more, the EU is also losing its competitive edge to China, whose economy is looking increasingly like that of the Union.
A poster promoting relations between China and Africa
So where does that leave Europe? Somewhere in Africa, perhaps. Analysts agree that the two sides share a vested interest in a stable continent and could put their strategic partnership to use in helping to shape it.
"It is very important in the next months to show that collaboration can yield practical results, even if things are difficult now," Holslag concluded.
And Richards agrees that there is more scope for working together than for division between the two sides. She says the EU needs China on a number of issues including Africa, and that China is ultimately interested in long-term stability to which Brussels is well-placed to contribute.
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge