To many in China, Europe is a beautiful continent with a long history and great modern accomplishments. However, as a recent poll1 by the Global Times, a daily Chinese tabloid, indicates, aesthetic pleasure is not sufficient for a strategic Sino-European partnership.

The most interesting finding to emerge from the survey, which was conducted in December 2012, is that misunderstandings between China and Europe are viewed as the result of the geopolitical dependence of “le vieux continent” on the United States.

According to many of those questioned, the foreign policy of the “big three” EU member states—France, Germany, and the UK—is shaped mainly by NATO and influenced by Capitol Hill. More than 87 percent of respondents view the EU’s dependence on the United States as the main obstacle to a comprehensive Sino-European partnership.

This assessment is understandable. For more than sixty years, European foreign policy has, from a Chinese perspective, been largely molded by American security interests.

With the exception of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Paris, Berlin, and London have endorsed U.S. involvement in the Middle East and supported most U.S. resolutions in the UN Security Council.

The 2011 intervention in Libya has shown that Europe now seems ready to take a lead in promoting Western values. As the then U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in 2012: “Ten years ago in Serbia, 80 percent of the missiles were American; in Libya it has been the other way around.”

London and Paris are also on the verge of intervening in the Syrian conflict by providing weapons for the rebels, even urging the United States to take a more proactive stance.

Is this EU-U.S. security harmonization the result of realpolitik, or does it reflect a transatlantic convergence of worldviews? More than 80 percent of survey respondents believe that tying EU foreign policy to values hinders the development of Sino-European relations, or at least creates the potential for misunderstandings.

As the familiar phrase “the West and the rest” suggests, there is a dichotomy of values that has not only an economic dimension, but also a politico-strategic one. These differences may reflect conflicting norms, and, unless handled with sensitivity, may lead to mistrust or even conflict.

Indeed, more than 53 percent of those surveyed believe that even though China and Europe promote international stability and share certain objectives, they differ in interpretation and strategy.

And 70 percent of respondents believe that the EU should remain neutral on issues of heightened Chinese sensitivity, such as the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands or maritime border disagreements in the South China Sea.

The EU’s arms embargo on China remains an impediment to a full partnership. This is less because of its significance for containing China’s military potential than because it is seen as a sign of mistrust and even humiliation. About 80 percent of respondents view the arms embargo as a serious or very serious issue.

Eighty-two percent believe that the EU’s efforts to “export” its human rights ideals and its occasional criticism of China hinder cooperation. Again, this is not unexpected. The Chinese still remember former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and the attack on a Chinese athlete carrying the Olympic flame in Paris, both in 2008.

During her last trip to Beijing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel abstained from raising human rights issues, a decision much appreciated by Chinese. This marks a clear shift in German foreign policy, which six years ago infuriated China when the Dalai Lama visited the German chancellery.

Finally, when asked to identify the most important aspect of the EU-China relationship, over 70 percent put trade first, followed by political and security ties and grassroots cultural exchanges. Even though in 2012 the EU lost its status as China’s largest export market, it nonetheless remains China’s biggest trade partner and an important exporter of technology to knowledge-hungry Chinese firms.

Overall, the results of this poll seem to confirm the current state of EU-China relations. Ties are not as frosty as they were after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but nor are they as warm as at the turn of the century.

As the survey indicates, there is a deep need to promote a comprehensive Sino-European partnership covering both economics and culture. It is also important to lessen any misunderstandings about Chinese and European values. If Europe is to become more trustworthy for the Chinese, it needs an independent foreign policy that will not merely project U.S. interests.

The French word concurrence implies both partnership and competition. It is time for the two great civilizations to abandon the latter and embrace the former.


1 This Global Times poll, conducted by two international-relations experts, gave readers the chance to express their views on EU-China relations. The poll received 2,000 responses, although—as with every online survey—the margin of error is hard to determine and the results should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Global Times attracts readers of a wide range of ages and backgrounds from throughout China.