China-EU Relations in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview with Mario Telò

Mario Telò is an eminent scholar in the International Relations and European Studies field. He has just edited Deepening the EU-China Partnership: Bridging Institutional and Ideational Differences in an Unstable World with Ding Chun and Zhang Xiaotong (Routledge, 2018) where he discusses the relations between China and Europe and launches some perspectives on the future of this partnership, facing the regional and global political and economic developments and the challenges posed by the current instability. The book constitutes the basis for this conversation.

—Daniela Irrera for EuropeNow


EuropeNow The China-EU relationship has slowly moved towards a highly institutionalized structure since its beginning. However, its building up has not been easy and passed through some controversial steps. Can you highlight this process and stress the major features of the present partnership, as well as its major achievements?

Mario Telò The EU and China are commonly described by scholars as emerging international actors and relatively young new global powers. Their partnership could only be enhanced after the end of the bipolar world. 1991 is actually the second historical juncture, which explains the enhanced partnership. The first one is 1945: when both powers were created following the historical turning point of the end of WWII—China with the foundation of the PRC in 1949, and the EU with the “Schuman declaration” of 1950 and the first “Paris treaty” of 1952. They were both marginal actors during the Cold War and only after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the bipolar world power structure  could they  take stock of the widening room for emerging new actors—the EU as the second Western power and China as the strongest one among  developing and emergent economies. The EU-China relationship started in 1975 and was upgraded in 2003 with the signature in Beijing of the Strategic Partnership, signaling the beginning of a honeymoon period between the two actors. The partnership is solid enough to overcome serious political crises and their consequences, among them the Tien an Men repression of 1989, the consequent arms embargo, or China’s decision to cancel, the EU-China meeting after the decision of president Nicolas Sarkozy to host the Dalai Lama in Paris during his EU presidency (2008). Both actors strengthened the multiple institutionalized policy dialogues with annual summits at the highest level. Contrary to China-US relations, the existing problems do not include security dilemmas. In theoretical terms, our book brings evidence for the relevance of the historical institutionalist approach:  firstly, the two critical junctures of 1945 and 1991 paved the way for the birth of new actors and  their emergence as global actors. Secondly, in the context of post-Cold War multipolarity, China’s membership within multilateral organizations (since 2001 in WTO, etc.) and the Strategic Partnership signed in 2003. Both political steps framed the institutionalized partnership between the EU and China, to cope with economic and political conflicts. Multilateralism, defined by Ruggie in his 1993 pioneering book (Multilateralism Matters, CUP), was and still is a gradual and distinctive learning process for China. The book explores an essential chapter of the “Multilateralism with Chinese characteristics” in the China-EU case. As Jervis underlined in his recent book (How Statesmen Think: The Psychology of International Politics, Princeton 2017), geopolitical strategy matters, trust and constructive mutual perception, play a relevant role in deepening international and transnational relations, in spite of different values and ideational factors.

EuropeNow The relationship is presented in the book as interplay between internal complexity and external policies. In which policy fields has bilateral cooperation been productive, and which ones have, instead, been marked by divergences?

Mario Telò Cooperation is positive according to the majority of experts. China is obviously very critical to the EU’s refusal to lift the arms embargo,  thirty years after Tien An Men, as well as the non-recognition of its Market Economy Status (MES). However, this does not prevent further deepening the strategic partnership.

The links between bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the fight against climate change and open trade provide the best examples of convergence. Economic cooperation, partnership in trade and environment, environmental research and sustainable development are the most productive dialogues, despite some disputes over the respect of intellectual property, and the rule of law. On the other hand, the dialogue on human rights has continued for years without substantial progress as far as individual human rights are concerned because the Chinese focus on social human rights (fight against poverty etc.). The EU’s idea is that multilateral cooperation and strategic partnership are likely to foster a gradual adaptation and adjustment of domestic law. Thus, multilateralism is based on top-level diplomacy, but also on networks, people-to-people cooperation, and convergence on rule-based governance.

We are aware that this approach is challenging for both traditional realism and neo-realism.The book shows that China is seriously interested in further opening its domestic market and making a true U-turn as far as environmental protection is concerned. However, in both cases, lobbying of various nature interplays with the decision-making process in an intensive and complex way. Theoretically, we need to design more sophisticated approaches to the role of domestic factors in foreign policy and external relations, sometimes on the basis of territorial constituency (provinces, big cities),  sectoral interests (business, state companies, etc.) or think tanks. Also, in some cases, the weight of domestic veto-powers or of fragmenting tendencies is so strong that the authoritarian trend following the 19th Congress has been accepted, even by some liberal scholars, as the most feasible way to reduce domestic chaos and excessive internal complexity. Many Chinese are ready to pay a high price in terms of personal freedoms to enhance policy efficiency

This happens because the need for consistent implementation of the 19th Congress objectives under  Xi Jinping’s  leadership (growth of the domestic consumption market, open trade, environmental protection) is so urgent that the new rhetoric of the “new era of development” is considered  a powerful driver for  general mobilization. In the context of his comprehensive and assertive sixty-five-page strategic speech at the party 19th  Congress of last November, President Xi Jinping asserted his role as long-term guide, in charge of ensuring coherent policy-implementation and top-down coordination of  society through an enhanced role for the party. The reason for such an authoritarian turn is that China cannot further postpone policy change if it wants to avoid debt-crisis, domestic social unrest, and environmental disasters. The promised perspective is that this new strategy makes the giant China a driving force in the global struggle for sustainable development, which is the very background for the success of COP 21 and  the convergence with the EU. The risk is however high. Authoritarianism could consolidate even in the capitalist model, putting in question not only Western values and beliefs, but all  Western modernization theories, from Max Weber to David Beetham (2007). In the Western view, an authoritarian government hinders the consolidation of a market economy; there is a correlation between economic growth and internal political stability, based on the development of an increasingly differentiated civil society.

The Xi Jinping approach shares, in many ways, the vision of the nationalist post-colonial leaders and of the thought of the China’s Republic first president, Sun Yat Sen (1929). Is it fit for a society which will account, within a few years, for around 500 million people belonging to the middle class?

EuropeNow The recent economic sanctions imposed by the US to the steel production have surely impacted the Chinese economic preferences, which have been, until now, open to multilateral cooperation. How likely is a change in such preferences and how could this reflect in the relations with the EU?

Mario Telò So far, China is reacting with limited retaliations against the US and, at the same time with more openness towards all other trade partners. The decision to drastically lower the tariff on imports is a clear signal of China’s commitment to free trade, given the interest to strengthen the domestic market. As argued by Ding Chun in his book chapter, it is the single way to overcome the currently explosive social disparities and implement more effective distributive policies. According to the Gini index, the EU “social market economy” is much more redistributive of revenues than the Chinese “socialist market economy.” Change of preferences for the CCP is a matter of domestic legitimacy and social stability.

EuropeNow In the Korean affair, China has demonstrated a very diplomatic attitude, trying to bring the political discourse among Trump and Kim Jong-un towards more moderate tones. Can we expect China to increase its ‘civilian’ power in the region?

Mario Telò China can paradoxically become  the diplomatic winner of the Korean negotiation, in opposition to the aggressive Trump approach. China’s official press (“China Daily” and “Global Times”) positively commented the peace process between North Korea, South Korea, and the US, China is extremely proactive, while the US needs to withdraw if Trump wants to succeed. The North-East Asia Trilateral cooperation has been revived and politicized by the Abe-Moon-Xi meeting of last May, supporting the role of regional states, which cannot be marginalized by a solution in the Korean peninsula crisis.  China’s regional “hegemony” is a journalistic definition, which has no justification in International Relations theory, whether  in Keohane, Cox or  Gilpin. I would prefer the expression “regional primacy:” Regionalism very much matters in China’s foreign policy even “with Chinese characteristics,” which do not coincide with the EU’s deep and binding vision of regional cooperation.

Both the EU and China are committed to strengthening cooperation with their respective surrounding areas, despite the difficulty in combining stability and transformation with some partners (Russia and Islamic fundamentalism for the EU and Japan, Vietnam and India for China). Chinese performance can be summarized as follows:  firstly, the ties with South East Asia are very good, considering the FTA with ASEAN (ASEAN plus 1), the Asian regional fund called “Chang Mai initiative” with ASEAN, Japan and S. Korea, the RCEP as expression of the ASEAN plus 6, including also Australia, India and New Zealand. Secondly, the distinctive trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea about technologies and environmental protection is developing. Thirdly, the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations (SCO) with central Asia is more controversial, while the bilateral dialogue and economic cooperation with India is improving (after the Xi Jinping meeting of April 27th). China is the first trading partner of every neighboring country. In his research, Qin Yaqing suggests a critical comparison with the ancient tributary system (between China and the surrounding countries), which lasted for centuries before Western colonization, by underlining that the system in the past was hierarchical, while the current one shows multilateral features. Actually,  China’s unprecedented internal and international evolution is the background for a large and pluralist debate on an innovative Chinese international relation theory (Qin 2018).

The nature of China’s current power between soft and hard power is discussed by Zhou Hong in our book and by Yan Xiaotong in his multiple books, through a realist approach. To my mind, China is still a limited regional military power so far, incomparable with the capacities and scope of the US global power. Furthermore, notwithstanding  China’s enhanced military budget, the difference with the US one increases every year according to the SIPRI figures. Many are writing about an emergent superpower. However, talking about a global emergent bipolar military confrontation with the US. A peace-architecture in East-Asia is still not  on the horizon. One should never underestimate how conflictual and dangerous this large and crucial region is, from the open Taiwan issue to the territorial controversies about several islands, to the legacy of the Cold War. Yet this strong regional network has deep historical roots and is likely to play a role in conflict prevention. The controversy about the islands in the China Sea and  the South China Sea still provokes tensions, notably with Vietnam and Japan and a true reconciliation with Japan is far. In this context, the US presence is welcomed by some of China’s neighbors (notably Vietnam and Japan), but perceived by China as a threat. The ASEAN regional forum, takes place every year with the participation of China the US and EU, and constitutes a place for dialogue and facilitation of peace measures in the dangerous Asia-Pacific area. A stronger regional architecture looks like the single possible way towards multilateral peace. Indeed, it is what Ernst Haas called “peace by pieces.”

EuropeNow ASEAN has played a great role until now in preventing military escalation and strengthening security. The help provided by the EU is undoubted. What is the role of ASEAN in the near future and is it still a priority in the EU’s security agenda?

Mario Telò Yes, ASEAN is a driving force  in the Asia-Pacific peace architecture, if one considers ASEAN plus 1, plus 3, plus 6, East Asian Summits, ASEAN regional forum (including the US, the EU and Russia as well), and finally ASEM, which started in 1996 and  includes the EU. The EU is potentially a factor of stability because it has established a constructive strategic partnership with the three main actors (India, Japan and China), interregional relations with all players and has no security dilemmas with anyone. However, it is increasingly clear  in the specialized literature that this partnership cannot be based on unilateral Eurocentric ideas, like “the EU model” or of a normative European power exporting its values, principles and regulations abroad. Fawcett and I (2016) identified the trend towards a third period of interregional relations within the post-Cold-War era, which is particularly relevant for ASEAN. Such relations are expanding in the number of arrangements and scope of policy fields. It is no longer a European identity marker in international relations as it was in the 1990s. Eurocentrism provoked negative but understandable reactions in the name of what Acharya defined in his preface to our book as the partners’ alternative ”cognitive priors.” A rule-based interregional governance can only be the outcome of fair and even compromises between the two sides, their interests and their cultures. This is particularly true as far as the EU-ASEAN relations are concerned.

A third, more balanced period of interregional relations is emerging after the two periods of Euro-centrism and Euro-skepticism. Becoming a global actor is for the EU inevitably a learning process. Between the Eurocentrism or West-centrism, on the one hand, and Relativism, on the other hand, many regional entities are exploring, with the EU, a third way, based on diffused reciprocity, mutual respect and recognition.

Such a new idea and practice of interregional relations is also relevant for the future of the EU-China partnership, which is a traditional intellectual challenge for the European political thought since the famous quarrel between Montesquieu, Rousseau and D’Holbach  in the 18th century about China. Our approach to this dialogue includes ideational confrontation; it  combines what the French philosopher Jullien defines as the “écart” (distance-taking) with the research  on convergence, distance,  mutual respect and frank confrontation about diverse values (Jullien 2016).

Moreover, we cannot give up on the EU’s idea of the need for a more binding global governance, beyond the dogma of “non-interference”. It is still relevant, not typical of communist China, and unfit for the governance of the transnational challenges humankind is facing in the twenty-first century, such as financial instability, climate change, extreme poverty, terrorism, infectious diseases.

EuropeNow Considering political and economic changes in  the Chinese foreign policy and facing the current global instability, can we expect the EU to replace the US in the relationship with China, thus producing some major changes in the global order?

Mario Telò The book presents important evidence that enhanced convergence is possible: Yuan Feng and Li Yi show the relevant progress in education and research in spite of the problems with Galileo. In their respective chapters, Goron and Bo Yan  demonstrate the extraordinary convergence which happened in Paris COP 21 between two alternative ways of understanding  and managing  climate change. The EU’s binding  approach could eventually find a compromise with the bottom-up Chinese approach. It could defend developing countries’ tradition of non-interference while accepting a top-down regular monitoring process (which is a soft form of binding governance).

After the US withdrawal from COP 21, the EU and China are ensuring the continuity of the anti-climate change regime, which is perfectly coherent with what Robert O. Keohane already  anticipated in 1984 (“After Hegemony”), that is to say that international regimes survive the defection of  hegemonic powers. Even if the US contribution is relevant the weakened regime could continue, without disappearing. The same is happening with Trans-Pacific Partnership TPP, signed by Obama, boycotted by Trump but continuing on, thanks to the  twelve remaining members, including Japan and a former USA junior partner (with the new acronym Comprehensive and Progressive TPP). The isolationist and protectionist Trump approach is dangerous for global stability, but cannot stop cooperation.

The EU is simultaneously strengthening the relation with Chin (analyzed by the outstanding academic expert Zhang Xiaotong), and its (of the EU) increasing presence in the Asia-Pacific, trade arrangement of second generation with South Korea and Vietnam and Japan and the ongoing negotiations with ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand

A common interest of EU and China is to reach an agreement on investment regulation while a free trade area is far from being implemented. It will depend on China’s decision to eventually upgrade trade arrangements, by including environmental and social issues, public procurement, geographic indications and a public conflict resolution system beyond the inefficient level of the current RCEP. In the current challenging context, deepening, interregional relations will take time (Telò, 2016).

Furthermore, there is a crucial point to be clarified  so there is no misunderstanding: the EU cannot replace the US as a leading Western power, since it  lacks the US’s hard power. The current transatlantic rift is balanced by the long-lasting alliance inNATO) and mutual economic symbiosis (700 B). The current unpredictable and unstable post-hegemonic international order would be impossible to manage simply through an EU-China alliance. Global leadership and a better global governance of  common challenges can only be a collective, multilateral and inclusive enterprise, within the G20 and international organizations like the UN and the WTO. It is in the interest of both the EU and China to leave the door open to multidimensional cooperation with the US and not to retaliate against the US’s administration policies. Politics is a compromise, even against the US president’s apparently irrational decision of starting trade wars and humiliating partners and allies. Even in the presence of a trade strategy defined as “ridiculous and crazy” by Woolf in the Financial Times (May 9th 2018) and as contradictory  to seventy years of US internationalism and open trade policy by Ikenberry in Foreign affairs (Summer 2017), Europe and China have a common interest to play as “quiet powers” and to look for various partnerships to save  multilateralism and work towards a change in US policy.



Mario Telò is Professor of International Relations at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and Emeritus President of the Institut d’Etudes Européennes. Over the years, he has extensively contributed to the academic debate on global governance, focusing on the role of the European Union as an unprecedented global actor (EU: a Civilian power? Palgrave 2005), comparative regionalism (EU and New Regionalism, Ashgate 2014, Regionalism in Hard Times, Routledge 2016), and the EU’s relations with major political actors, particularly with China. He has led several international research projects and networks on these issue. He combines an extensive   experience as visiting professor and researcher in various American, East Asian and European universities with the one as advisor to the main European institutions.

Daniela Irrera is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Catania, Italy and member of the research editorial committee of EuropeNow.




Allison G. Destined for war. Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap? Melbourne: Scribe, 2017.

Beetham D. ‘Market economy and democratic polity’, in Democratization, n. 4, 2007,  pp. 76-97.

Fawcett L., Telò M., Ponjaert F. (eds)  Interregionalism and EU, London: Routledge 2015.

Jervis R. How Statesmen Think: The Psychology of International Politics, Princeton: PUP, 2017.

Jullien F. L’écart et l’autre, Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 2018.

Ikenberry J. ‘The Plot against American Foreign Policy. Can the Liberal Order Survive?’ in Foreign affairs, May-June 2017.

Keohane R. O. After Hegemony”, Princeton: PUP,1984.

Qin Y.  Relational Theory of International Relations, Cambidge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ruggie J. G. (ed) Multilateralism Matters, New York: Columbia University Press,1993.

Sun Yat sen, 三民主義 建國大綱. [The Three Principles of the People and Fundamentals of National Reconstruction]. Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1929.

Telò M. Regionalism in Hard Times, London: Routledge, 2016.

Woolf  M. ‘Trump Declares Trade War on China’, in Financial Times May 9th 2018, p. 9 Published on June 5, 2018.


Published on June 21, 2018.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email