Sino-European relations are a one-way street going in China’s direction.  A recent report describes it as “unconditional engagement,” a “policy that gives China access to all the economic and other benefits of cooperation with Europe while asking for little in return.” 

 “A Power Audit of EU-China Relations,” released in April by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), clearly explains that the problem lies with the European Union and the inability of its 27 member states to devise a single coherent policy towards China.  A recent Financial Times headline echoes the report’s findings: “China Sees EU as Mere Pawn in Global Game.”  At face value it would seem that an attitude of divide and conquer would be a good mantra for the Chinese when dealing with the European Union.  The result is that the values and norms, such as human rights and rule of law, that Europe would like to see implemented within China are not forthcoming because Europe has little to no leverage.

European importance and economic influence is declining within Washington, despite the shared values and historical ties, because of such issues as the reluctance or inability of European NATO nations to put combat boots on the ground in Afghanistan. In addition, as noted in the National Intelligence Council report “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” the economic center is rapidly shifting from Europe to Asia.  That Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first overseas visit was to Asia and not Europe reaffirms this transition. 

As the United States continues to work with China, a cosmic shift within the paradigm of international relations continues in which Europe stands to be left by the wayside.  There is a real possibility of Europe been reduced to, as the ECFR report describes it,  “a future of increasing global irrelevance.”  A clearer picture will begin to emerge after the current economic crisis passes — which some suggest will result in the zero been removed from the G20. 

There are areas, such as technology and climate change, where Europe could have bargaining power with China.  However, Europe must get its own act together before going to the negotiating table with China.  As the ECFR report highlights, a good start would be a clearly set of defined policy areas on which to engage China.

An open and frank debate within Europe is urgently required concerning the union’s engagement with China.  Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty would be a helpful start, along with a more centralized approach to engaging with China coming out of the European Council.  This has to begin with the European President speaking with one voice representing all of Europe to China.

Damien Tomkins is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Asia Program.