Europe-China Relations

An introduction to our special feature on Europe-China Relations.


It has been more than 40 years since the first formal, diplomatic relations between China and the European Union (EU) were established. In the subsequent years, relations between these two global economic powerhouses have significantly developed, with both the EU and China publishing and implementing a number of communiqués intended to build and strengthen partnership. The current diplomatic structure was initially launched 15 years ago in 2003 and reinforced in 2013 with the signing of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, but it has been heavily criticised as not living up to expectation.[1] This joint approach is structured around three high level pillars focusing on Economic and (Sectoral) Trade Dialogue; Strategic (Political) Dialogue; and People-to-People Dialogue.  Despite the criticisms, the EU-China relationship undoubtedly remains one of the most important in the world, not least in terms of trade. China is the EU’s biggest source of imports and its second largest export market, while the EU is China’s biggest trading partner. The two regions trade over €1.5billion a day with each other.

The specifics of trade volumes aside, there remains scope for further enhancement of EU-China relations and significant challenges persist, specifically in the area of political trust building. Both China and the EU are acutely aware of the need to address this issue, which has been a perennial concern for those seeking to drive forward relations in recent years; who see the lack of trust as a real limitation for effective dialogue within the high level comprehensive strategic partnership structure. There are a wide variety of issues that undermine trust building in EU-China relations. On the European side, these include ongoing concerns about human rights abuses, intellectual property theft, weak adherence to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and limited economic reforms, and a lack of reciprocity in access to Chinese markets. While on the Chinese side, the lack of trust is exacerbated by frustrations that exist about the failure of the EU to recognise China as a market economy, the continued implementation of the 1989 arms embargo, and the EU’s use of antidumping measures and investment screening which China views as excessive protectionism.

There are of course some areas of cooperation where hopes for success still remain large. In particular, climate change policy has been identified as one area where mutual interests on a global scale can be achieved. Since the announcement of the withdrawal of the USA under President Trump from the 2015 Paris Agreement there has been a marked increase in calls for Europe and China to work together to forward the climate change interests of both the developed and developing worlds. But even here, the question of trust and differentiated policy positions on burden sharing linger.

The EU and China, however, remain committed to developing their relations. The EU launched its new Strategy on China in June 2016 with a view to taking a more realistic approach to its relations with China. Addressing the trust issue is key to this. The head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, Ambassador Zhang Ming, also reflected on this point in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in April 2018 when he said: “We need to have greater mutual trust. China always supports the European integration process, and supports a united, stable and prosperous EU in playing a bigger role in global affairs.”[2]  These words echoed those made by Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in his 2014 address to the College of Europe in Bruges. It was also in his Bruges speech that Xi Jinping stated that to move their relationship forward “China needs to know more about Europe, and Europe needs to know more about China.” […] “Only when we know where a country has come from,” he continued, “could we possibly understand why the country is what it is today, and only then could we realize in which direction it is heading.”[3]

One way that both Europe and China can enhance their respective knowledge is through education and mobility opportunities, areas of exchange that have been growing in recent years. In 2015, more than 11 percent of tertiary education students from abroad studying in the EU came from China, making it the source of the highest percentage of mobility students. Chinese students make up the largest share of students from abroad in seven EU countries (Germany – 11.2 percent; Ireland – 10.6 percent; France – 10.6 percent; Italy – 13.9 percent; Finland – 8.3 percent; Sweden – 8.8 percent; and the United Kingdom – 21.2 percent).[4]  In the case of the UK, in 2015 the number of Chinese students enrolled at its universities and colleges exceeded for the first time those from the rest of the EU combined.[5]  By 2017 the number of Chinese students studying in the UK topped 95,090 and, when taken into account the students from Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region), the number of students increased to 111,770, emphasising the attractiveness of the UK in this expanding sector.[6] Of course, it also highlights the fact that the number of Chinese students studying in Europe dwarfs the number of EU students studying in China, where in 2016, there were just under 80,000 EU students enrolled at Universities.[7]  For China, attracting foreign students is certainly desired, but special attention is focused on the rest of Asia and the countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) corridors rather than Europe, as it aims to increase the number of enrolled foreign students to 500,000 by 2020.

Education is just one part of the High-Level People-to-People Dialogue (HPPD) pillar that is intended to work towards improving trust levels between China and Europe. The need to do so is considered more urgent in light of the growing engagement and focus on the BRI towards Europe and attempts to link it to the EU’s own Trans-European Transport Network. Working in areas beyond education, culture and youth to expand the scope of HPPD cooperation and open debate on EU-China relations is a primary goal of the EU according to Martine Reicherts, head of the EU Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture.[8]

This special feature of EuropeNow contributes to this debate with some insights into how EU-China relations are currently viewed among European and Chinese researchers and invites EuropeNow readers to participate in the discussion about where the future of relations between these two new great powers lies.

Madeleine Herren’s work “Roads, Belts, and Connectivities: Chinese Silk Road Projects in New Perspective” critically interrogates the Chinese silk road initiative by contextualizing it historically and investigating how the use of such a past manifests in a powerful yet ambivalent way. This article understands the new silk road project as an expression of change in the theory and praxis of geopolitics, thereby challenging a territory-based understanding of power. Despite close international cooperation, current international activities emerge via bilateral agreements, with geopolitical considerations (re)introducing asymmetrical power relations via strengthening Eurasian countries and Iran as transit countries, African ports as access to the Mediterranean Sea and Iceland as a destination for the Chinese ships crossing the Arctic. The new silk road marginalizes Europe by organizing connectivities multilaterally.

In his conversation with Sherman Teichman, “China Engaging Europe: Thoughts on an Emerging Relationship,” Arne Westad provides his expert analysis on China’s increasing engagement with Europe, its economic interests and strategic investment as well as its political leverage on the global stage. Westad further points to the challenges that the US’ potential withdrawal from international affairs could mean for the relations with China and other parts of the world.

Tarlea and Weber’s work “The Politics of Studying Europe in China,” reveals that in order to consolidate relations with China, the European Union has provided research funding to Chinese universities. However, what does scholarship in China speak about Europe? To a regime such as China’s, does Europe’s openness in science and research serve a political purpose? Is it possible to state that China is just as open about its own research and development outputs regarding Europe? The proposed research agenda investigates the production of knowledge in China regarding Europe and potential European responses. Of particular interest is European Studies engaging economic and political concerns, thereby investigating the effectiveness of the European Union’s research openness, thus highlighting the politicization of research in an authoritarian context.

Xinghua Liu’s article “Belt and Road Initiative in Europe: Reaching Beyond Asia,” explores the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Europe, via the reciprocity of cooperation, China’s institution-building efforts, and the rule compliance of the part of all parties involved. Although Europe’s responses towards BRI vary, given the economic need for cooperation, Europe’s attitude has been robust. Per this initiative, leaders of China and European countries are forging a trade-based cooperative structure. As European countries are geographically removed from China, Sino-European relations within the BRI framework will not be subject to “peripheral relations,” “regional hegemony,” or “security dilemma.” Despite the controversies over BRI among European politicians, its economic attribute will gain momentum driven by mutual demand, thus contributing to a trans-regional cooperation model.

Andreas Bøje Forsby commentary piece “A ‘Critical’ Dialogue? Taking Stock of Europe’s Human Rights dialogue with China,” reveal that in recent decades, relations between Europe and China have been characterized by individual European countries pursuing deepening economic engagement, bilateral strategic relationships, and a general avoidance of sensitive political issues. Consequently, Europe’s fragmented approach to an illiberal China risks the appearance of acquiescence regarding human rights via three main poles: (a) “the reluctant standard bearers” (like Sweden) that feel morally obliged to address Chinese human rights abuses; (b) “the reticent pragmatists” (like Denmark) that prefer to keep a low profile and accommodate the rise of China; and “the wilful obstructionists” (like Hungary) that actively seek to shield China from criticism. In fact, China’s increasing economic and political influence will make it increasingly unlikely that these three groups will find common ground.

Patrick Bayer’s policy brief “Cap Setting and Strict Compliance Enforcement Will Be Critical for Chinese Emissions Trading Scheme” examines European carbon markets with an eye on policy design, and applies the importance of cap setting and a strict stance on enforcing compliance to the Chinese context. With a balance of an achievable reduction target (“cap”) and enforceable compliance, an emissions trading scheme will set new standards, thus encouraging other governments to follow China’s leadership on climate change. This study argues that market designs, coordinated across jurisdictions, can address the potential of carbon markets by integrating them within a global market.

Knoerich and Vitting, in “Controversies and Contradictions about Chinese Investments in Europe,” examine the different perspectives concerning Chinese foreign direct investments (FDI) in Europe through the case study of Kelch, a small but technologically advanced German firm with a long tradition within the “Mittelstand” of small- and medium-sized firms. The Chinese investment reveal both the clear recognition that foreign FDI brings in capital, creates jobs and introduces new products to European markets and a deep sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the implications of Chinese investment for European countries, firms and citizens.

Eamonn Butler’s piece “16 + 1: The EU’s concerns of a Chinese ‘Trojan Horse’” examines the criticisms leveled towards the 16+1 Initiative between China and Central and Eastern European Countries. He notes that since its formal launch in 2012, suspicions about the nature and purpose of the platform have encouraged consistent criticism from political commentators. These have suggested that 16+1 is nothing more than a crude mechanism for China to obtain influence within the EU, to divide the Union, and to reinforce bilateral ties at national member state level that hinder a common EU position on relations with China. A Trojan Horse if you will. It is suggested that the consistency of these criticism over the past 6 years have shown, on the one hand, that 16+1 and its members have failed to adequately explain the platforms purpose to the outside audience in the west; but, on the other hand, it also shines a spotlight on the EU’s own failures to adequately live up to the expectations of its newest members and reflects a sense of insecurity about CEE engagement in sub-regional partnership activity.

Alberto Turkstra in his article “Central Asia in the Age of Connectivity” points out that Central Asia, although a crucial economic corridor, has remained overlooked in academic research. Hence, this article argues that the EU should begin to focus on Central Asia’s significance and global economic potential by providing regulatory and legal frameworks, a “soft infrastructure,” while China provides, among others, railways and roads as a “hard infrastructure.”

Alexandra Maria Bosce’s work “The EU and China: Prospects of Cooperation on Climate and Energy” argues that engaging China is essential for the process of implementing the Paris Agreement, not only because China is the leading global emissions emitter (26.83 percent of the GHG emissions) but the US is leaving. However, a lack of information prevents the Commission from engaging with China on energy and climate issues.

Nonetheless, the EU is aiming to export its policies applicable to carbon markets, renewable energy and energy efficiency to China, reflecting the EU’s willingness to act as a leader in emissions technologies. However, before exporting the EU Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS) and its inclusive energy market model, the EU has additional work to do in order to make sure they are functional at home.

In the curated show “New Life,” the works of Chinese artists Kim Song, Long Bin Chen and Nina Kuo highlight how contemporary art deals with consumerism and global influences while remaining grounded in Chinese tradition and values via stunning artistic techniques.

In “The Globalzation of Education – Challenges and Opportunities,” Richard Berry sheds light on how Transnational Education has offered the University of Glasgow with opportunities to raise its profile while, at the same time, enhancing the quality of its education and research in a sustainable fashion. Berry further discusses TNE in relation to economic growth and slowdowns, the global knowledge market and latest pedagogical developments.




“16+1: The EU’s concerns of a Chinese ‘Trojan Horse'” by Eamonn Butler

– “Controversies and Contradictions About Chinese Investments in Europe” by Jan Knoerich and Simon Vitting

“Belt and Road Initiative in Europe: Reaching Beyond Asia” by Xinghua Liu

“A ‘Critical’ Dialogue?’ Taking Stock of Europe’s Human Rights Dialogue with China” by Andreas Boje Forsby

“Cap Setting and Strict Compliance Enforcement Will be Critical for Chinese Emissions Trading Scheme” by Patrick Bayer

“The EU and China: Prospects of Cooperation on Climate and Energy” by Alexandra-Maria Bocse

“The Politics of European Studies in China: Scientific Arguments for the Party and the State?” by Ralph Weber and Silvana Tarlea

“Central Asia in the Age of Connectivity” by Alberto Turkstra

Visual Art

– New Life, an art series curated by Nicole Shea


“China Engaging Europe: An Interview with Odd Arne Westard” by Sherman Teichman

“Fast Fashion, Transnational Ties, and Encounter Ethnography in Italy: An Interview with Elizabeth L. Krause” by Kelly McKowen

Campus Spotlight: University of Glasgow

“The Glasgow-Nankai Joint Graduate School: An Interview with Richard Berry” by Lara Davis and Eamonn Butler

Syllabus: The Geopolitics of Central Europe by Eamonn Butler

Syllabus: The International Politics of Post-Soviet Central Asia by Luca Anceschi

Syllabus: Comparative European Politics by Thomas Lundberg




Eamonn Butler is a Senior Lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow. He also coordinates the Erasmus Mundus Joint International Master Degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (in conjunction with Charles University Prague and Dublin City University). His research interests focus primarily on Central Europe and the European Union.

Nicole Shea is the Director of the Council for European Studies at Columbia University and the Executive Editor of EuropeNow.

Photo: Top view aerial photo from flying drone of a developed Hong Kong city with modern skyscrapers with contemporary design. China town with business and financial centers and road with cars | Shutterstock


[1] See Maher, R. (2016), ‘The elusive EU-China strategic partnership’, in International Affairs, 92(4), pp959-976;

[2] China Daily (ed.) (2018), ‘EU should look at China with fair and open mind: Chinese envoy”, 19 April 2018. Available at:, accessed 15 May 2018.

[3] Chinese Government (2014), Speech at the College of Europe by H.E. Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, Bruges, 1 April 2014. Available at:, accessed 15 May 2018.

[4] Eurostat Online, (educ_uoe_mobs02). Available at: Accessed 15 May 2018.

[5] Cassidy, S. (2015), “UK receives more Chinese foreign students than from the whole of the EU, statistics show”, The Independent, 15 January 2015.

[6] UK Council for International Student Affairs (2018), “International student statistics: UK higher education”, 3 April 2018. Available at:–Policy/Statistics/International-student-statistics-UK-higher-education, accessed 15 May 2018.

[7] Marsh, N. (2017), “China sees 11% growth of international student enrolments”, 28 March 2018. Available at:, accessed 15 May 2018.

[8] New China (2017), “Interview: Belt and Road Initiative facilitates closer links between China, Europe: EU official”, 29 April 2017. Available at:, accessed 15 May 2018.


Published on June 5, 2018.


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