45 years of EU-China diplomatic relations have bonded the two sides into a comprehensive strategic partnership to jointly cope with global challenges and support each other.
It was 45 years ago, on May 6, 1975 in Beijing when Christopher Soames, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of external relations, and Qiao Guanhua, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, formalized the establishment of diplomatic relations of the two sides. The day before, despite his hospitalization, Premier Zhou Enlai had insisted on receiving Soames.
China's recognition of European integration echoed its strategic intention to "counter the desire for hegemony of the superpowers" by relying as much on the desire for autonomy and unity of the Europeans, as on the quality of the relationship between the European Economic Community (EEC) and developing countries (the Lomé Convention had just been signed in February 1975). On the European side, besides Soames' personal interest in China, it was about taking advantage of China's readmission into the United Nations (1971) and the process of normalization of Sino-American relations (1972-1979) to establish official relations with Beijing – just as the ECC had done with India as early as1962.
May 1975 would also open a new chapter in the shared history of Europe and China through Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s visit to France (May 12-17). This historic move, the first visit by a Chinese state leader to the West, heralded the development of comprehensive relations between Europe and China.
45 years later, the relationship between the European Union (EU) and China has become a pillar of the international system.
On May 20, Feng Zhenglin (left), director of Civil Aviation Administration of China, Luminita Odobescu (central), the permanent representative to the European Union of Romania which is currently holding the Presidency of the EU Council, and Violeta Bulc (right), European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, jointly signed the Agreement between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the European Union on Civil Aviation Safety and the Agreement between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the European Union on Certain Aspects of Air Services in Brussels.
From Development Aid to Global Strategic Partnership
The first trade agreement linking the EEC to China was signed in 1978, and the first visit by a President of the Commission (Roy Jenkins) took place the following year. Euro-Chinese cooperation in the early days emphasized technical assistance and development aid, particularly in the agricultural, educational and scientific fields.
The European Commission delegation started its operation in Beijing in 1988, under the leadership of France's Pierre Duchateau (1921-2009).
The 1990s were marked by the growing importance of political dialogue due to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), the creation of the EU (1992) and the process of EU enlargement (from 1994). The European Commission published its first communication on China in 1995, referring to a long-term policy, paving the way for a dialogue on human rights and the organization of the 1st EU-China Summit in London in April 1998. This political process supported the negotiations for China's entry into the World Trade Organization (2001).
The following decade is one of maturity, with the creation of the three pillars of the EU-China relationship: economic and commercial dialogue (2008), strategic dialogue (2010, following the creation of the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and cultural dialogue (2012), culminating with the adoption of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation at the 2013 Beijing summit, and the first visit of a Chinese head of state to Brussels in 27 years, in 2014. At the time President Xi Jinping described China as “a major partner of the EU.”
During the celebration of the 40th anniversary of establishment of their diplomatic relations in May 2015, the two parties laid the foundations for future commitments to face up to global challenges: negotiation of an investment agreement, cooperation within the WTO, promotion of connectivity and mobility, and above all the fight against climate change, with an agreement at the highest level leading to the adoption of the Paris Agreement (COP21, in December 2015).
In April 2019, the 21st EU-China Summit in Brussels concluded with an ambitious joint declaration in support of multilateralism, ecological transition, and balanced trade in an economic relationship that has become critical for the international economy: the EU and China daily trade figures amounted to more than €1.5 billion in goods and services in 2019.
Challenges of the EU-China Relationship
This succession of events, reflects above all, the remarkable continuity of the European engagement with China, which bears the seal of partnership in the face of global challenges. Now more than ever, faced with a global health crisis unprecedented in a century, we can appreciate the benefits of this relationship, both for itself and for the rest of the world.
In China, the EU promotes a multilateral system that is instrumental in regulating globalization by establishing legal rules for tangible and intangible exchanges. At a time of dual energy and digital revolution, the agreement between the EU and China is as necessary as it is imperative to bring prosperity, balance, sustainability and security to our citizens.
Contrary to what is sometimes reported, European unity, which has been a work in progress since 1957, remains the compass of our 27 member states, because only the EU allows European nations to weigh in on world affairs. Likewise, the remarkable growth of the Chinese economy over the past 45 years means that new forms of equilibrium must be sought in a geopolitical landscape undergoing profound transformation.
The COVID-19 pandemic is putting to test the entire international system since January 2020 and requires a comprehensive response, both bilaterally and multilaterally. The EU and China must strengthen their partnership to overcome this crisis and provide the most vulnerable members of the international community with the support they need.
NICOLAS CHAPUIS is the ambassador of European Union to China