Two's company, three's a crowd: Europe eyes the summit between China and the United States taking place in California, while trying to find its own place in the group.
The summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama is a meeting of near equals, but also, of competitors - particularly as leaders of the world's largest economies. But with all 27 members of the European Union taken together, the EU has its own economic stronghold.
Still, the US-China connection should not be underestimated, said Chinese political scientist Yan Xuetong, of Beijing's Tsinghua University. "In the future, this bi-lateral relationship will be the most influential in the world," he recently said at a meeting hosted by the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "There's none other that will be as important."
US President Barack Obama's former security advisor, Thomas Donilon, said at a meeting with the press at the White House that the United States would concentrate more on Asia and China in the future. Is that reason for Europe to worry that it will be rejected? That the US and China will work more closely together than the US and Europe?
Europe's relationship to China isn't comparable
There's no reason for jealousy, believes foreign policy expert and member of the European Parliament, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff. It's difficult to say which relationship is more important - that of the US and China, or that of the US and Europe, he said. "They're very different relationships," he noted. "Geopolitically, the US and China are rivals in the Pacific region. The US has a bilateral security agreement with Japan and South Korea. China has its own interests in the region. And there are several disputes in the South Chinese Sea. That's a more intense and different relationship than what Europe has with China," Graf Lambsdorff told Deutsche Welle.
Like the US, Europe also has strong economic relations with China. "We have diplomatic relations and discussions about democracy," Graf Lambsdorff noted. "We make clear that we do not endorse the state of human rights in China. So, it's a complex relationship, but not comparable to that of the US and China."
European Commission President Jose Barroso likewise sees no need for jealousy. During a summit meeting with Chinese leaders last year, Barroso said that a kind of friendship had developed. "Relations between the EU and China are a prime example of how two major partners can work together in a multipolar world," he gushed. That the European Commission has imposed anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar panels may not be helpful, but trade disputes won't burden the foundation of the relationship, EU diplomats in Brussels have said. In addition, the United States has also imposed anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar panels.
Not at Europe's expense
The US Department of State has played down European concerns that the US will neglect Europe as it "re-balances" its military and financial resources from Atlantic to Pacific nations. US Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, said during a spring visit by the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, that the shift "President Obama is undertaking will not be at the expense of relations with Europe. We actually want to be more involved with Europe, and Europe has always been a good partner. That is the reason President Obama stressed in his State of the Nation his support of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership." Furthermore, John Kerry traveled to Europe, not Asia, on his first trip abroad as Secretary of State.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff agrees with Kerry. A US-EU free trade zone would mean progress, he said, and would further anchor already strong transatlantic relations.
"That is the attempt by the two largest economic regions in the world - the European and American markets - to connect," Graf Lambsdorff said. "If the project works, there will more growth both in the United States and in Europe."
On the other hand, the foreign affairs expert said, the US' interest in Asia and the Pacific region is understandable. "The US has always been a Pacific area, to some extent. It's completely normal that the American president is keeping a close eye on China. Besides, China is growing and advancing, and one has to organize how one works together."
Europe as a difficult negotiating partner
From China's perspective, negotiations are probably easier with the United States than with the European Union. There is only one negotiator and one president to communicate with. In Brussels, there are 27, soon to be 28, nations which gather together, and which often have varying interests. Catherine Ashton aims to reconcile all those interests. She also recently traveled to China to meet the new leadership.
In Beijing, she avoided touchy subjects when speaking with the press. She only said that the EU's aim was to make advances in the coming weeks and months. She said she wanted to concentrate on subjects such as urban development, rural economies and environmentally-friendly growth.
Even in economic matters, EU nations have their differences. Only a minority of EU states have agreed to the anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar panels. Internal conflicts within the EU could also lead to negotiating partners - whether China or the United States - using those conflicts to their advantage. "If we allow ourselves to be divided, we can't reproach them for that," said Graf Lambsdorff.
The EU is not even in agreement on the highly acclaimed free trade agreement with the US. Details for a negotiating mandate, which all 27 EU-member states must agree to, have not yet been settled - just days before the negotiations are scheduled to begin.
The new "Mare nostrum"
Despite all assurances by both American politicians and European experts, there are concerns in Europe about the US' policy shift. One commentator in Spanish newspaper "El Pais" wrote this week: "The alliances between the United States and Asia are changing the world map. Chinese President Xi Jinping's tour of the US is one part of a plan to create a network of trade relations. The Pacific will become a 'Mare nostrum' of the 21st century. It will gain the importance that the Mediterranean Sea had during the Roman Empire." Latin American, El Pais also pointed out, was also turning its attention to the Pacific and Asia.