BRUSSELS/BEIJING (Reuters) - Seizing on the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive to move Sino-European relations beyond trade and raise China’s international profile, buoyed by its success winning European participation in a new Asian bank.
A two-day visit by European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to Beijing on Tuesday to meet top Chinese officials, including Premier Li Keqiang, follows up on a visit by the head of the European Parliament in March and comes ahead of a China-EU summit in Brussels in June.
Beijing has organized a series of diplomatic events in Brussels, the EU’s de facto capital, mostly in May and June, including cocktails at the European Commission, an opera performance, and open days at the embassy, an imposing building normally shuttered behind steel gates.
The outreach is a world away from the low-key approach adopted by Beijing since May 1975, when the first European commissioner went to China to establish ties for the bloc to add to most of its members’ bilateral ties.
“It is very encouraging that both China and the EU are taking full advantage of the 40th anniversary of China-EU diplomatic relations to deepen their comprehensive strategic partnership featuring peace, growth, reform and civilization,” Yang Yanyi, China’s ambassador to the European Union, told the parliament’s trade committee last month.
“The two sides will set the course for the future.”
Trade is still at the core of the relationship, worth 467 billion euros last year, and Brussels’ approach to expanding ties has so far been rooted in slow-moving negotiations on more technical issues of trade and investment.
But China wants Europe to know that it is not just a bulk buyer of raw materials or a manufacturer of consumer goods, Chinese diplomats said.
Its offer to deepen cooperation on world affairs resonates with the EU just as it seeks to forge a more unified, collective foreign policy among its 28 member countries.
But Europeans worry that may distract from efforts to agree by late next year a treaty reducing barriers to each other’s markets that could form the basis of a future trade agreement.
“China wants a deepening of ties, as do we, but we are focused on the EU-China investment treaty under negotiation, whereas they also want to talk about their role in the world,” said a senior EU official.
In the long term, China appears set on reworking existing global governance mechanisms, laying down a challenge to the United States and the institutions that Washington has dominated since World War Two.
Those efforts enjoyed spectacular success recently when the nascent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) won unexpected backing from European governments who chose, in an ill-coordinated scramble for advantage, to join despite Washington’s misgivings.
“More and more people in Europe have figured out the emergence of China. There has been rhetoric about China’s emergence for a long time, but they think this is probably reality now,” said Feng Zhongping, the director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a state think-tank.
China also wants European support for its plans to spend billions of dollars to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once carried treasures between China and the Mediterranean, an item that will be high on the agenda for Mogherini’s visit, Feng said.
“China would like to hear what Europeans think about how to enhance cooperation on this ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative,” he said.
Still, the European Union remains wary of Beijing.
Many in Europe want the EU to bring up human rights concerns, which Chinese officials see as irritating interference in its domestic affairs.
Activists in Europe have called on Mogherini to publicly call for the release of government critics, anti-corruption activists, lawyers and journalists.
The main tension, however, stems from China’s desire to displace European products with its own exports, in areas ranging from sophisticated telecoms networks to solar panels.
Europe accuses China of state capitalism, or close government control of privately owned businesses, and Brussels has regularly challenged what it sees as state subsidies to Chinese firms to undercut rivals in Europe.
China insists economic decisions in the country are made based on supply and demand, not the state, and wants to receive better treatment in trade disputes.
The European Union is caught in a bind about how to tackle the trade issue. World Trade Organization rules may grant China market economy status in December next year, although lawyers say the reading of the rules is up for interpretation.
“There is often a gulf in understanding,” said Duncan Freeman, a political analyst at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. “Sometimes they come at issues from such different places there are bound to be problems.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall