The European Neighbourhood Policy and China’s policy towards its neighbours both pursue goals that can be mutually contradictory: stability and democracy in the case of the ENP, stability and sovereignty in the case of China. In the short term at least, attempts to promote democracy can endanger regional stability and vice versa. Efforts to promote sovereignty can do the same.
The EU failed to preserve the stability of its neighbourhood in the 2011 Arab Spring; however, the Arab Spring brought some progress towards democracy. China broadly succeeded in preserving the political status quo and a stable business environment in its own neighbourhood; however, its attempts to assert its sovereignty and change its de facto borders, particularly in the South China Sea, raised concerns among her neighbours and in turn risked threatening regional stability.
Can one compare the neighbourhood policies of the EU and of China at all? One could say that the EU and China are like apples and oranges. The EU is not a State but a sui generis, ‘post-modern’ regional organisation that professes the universal values of democracy and human rights. It is based on the principles of pooling of sovereignty, of close coordination and mutual scrutiny of domestic policies and, one could say, of systematic interference in other countries’ affairs. By contrast, China is a ‘modern’ State that professes in its foreign policy the Westphalian principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
Furthermore, the EU shares the same value system and the same broad interests as the world’s strongest power, the US. China is a rising power that is often at odds with the US in its neighbourhood. Geographically, the EU is surrounded by smaller neighbours and only one large neighbour, Russia. China is surrounded not only by smaller neighbours and by Russia, but also by Japan and India, which are regional powers in their own right.
Nevertheless, the EU and China both have devised specific policies to deal with their neighbours: the European Neighbourhood Policy in the case of the EU, and the Good Neighbour Policy in that of China. This makes it possible to attempt a comparison.
Such comparison is fraught with many limits and with many pitfalls, and has not yet been attempted as far as I know. Here are some personal reflections on the two policies; I hope they are useful. I should stress that these reflections are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the EU.
European Neighbourhood Policy
Born on the eve of the great enlargement of the EU to the East in 2004, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) had the goal of strengthening the ‘stability, security and well-being’ of the neighbours that were not going to be part of the enlarged EU. To do this, the ENP aimed at supporting the neighbours’ internal reform programmes towards EU standards, both in the field of business and economic development and in the field of democracy, rule of law and human rights. It aimed at the closest possible economic integration and political association of the neighbours into the EU, short of political integration.
However, the EU was not content with just supporting the status quo in its neighbourhood. The EU sought to project stability by exporting the EU model of free markets combined with democracy, respect of human rights and rule of law, which would have a transformative effect on its partners. In terms of the constructivist paradigm of international relations, the EU could be described as an exporter of ‘norms’ (standards of accepted behaviour) to its neighbours.
After the 2011’Arab spring’, the EU readjusted the priorities of the ENP and put a stronger emphasis on the promotion of democracy, specifically ‘deep and sustainable democracy’. The EU made its support more clearly conditional on neighbours’ commitment and progress towards this goal. The EU’s new emphasis on promoting democracy is clearly a reaction to unfolding events (even the title of the 2011 Communication on ENP indicates that this is a ‘response’ to a changing neighbourhood). If democracy in turn translates into instability, for instance into civil war or into the threat of Islamic extremists coming to power, will the ENP revert to its original, foremost goal of promoting stability?
Many say that the 2011 Arab spring marked the failure of the ENP, because the ENP failed to promote political reform and to ensure stability in the region. But has the ENP really failed? In fact, the Arab spring has the potential of bringing the EU’s Southern neighbours closer to the democratic standards of the EU, which is one of the underlying goals of the ENP. The contacts and networks created by the ENP may have contributed, albeit in small and indirect way, to the spread of ideas that created the democratic movement. It may not be a coincidence that the movement started in Tunisia, which had the greatest exposure to the EU.
The ENP has created a dense network of meetings and contacts at various levels between the EU and its neighbours, not only with governments but with civil society, which certainly contributed to ‘socialisation’ between the EU and its neighbours and to presenting EU values and standards to the neighbours. If the ENP failed at all else, it at least provided many avenue for dialogue on issues as concrete as political and economic reform between the EU and its neighbours and, through its multilateral and regional initiatives, dialogue about regional issues among the neighbours themselves.
China’s neighbourhood policy
In the 1990s China inaugurated its Good Neighbour Policy (‘mulin youhao zhengce’), which marked a new start from the contentious relations, ideological struggle and border wars of the previous decades. Interestingly, the stated goals of the neighbourhood policies of the EU and of China are almost identical. When the EU launched the ENP in 2004, it said its new policy sought to promote the ‘stability, security and well-being’ of its neighbourhood. The year before, China had said it sought ‘amicable, peaceful and prosperous neighbours’ (‘mulin, anlin, fulin’). China needed peace and stability chiefly to trade with its neighbours, to prevent the import of separatist movements into its Western regions and to secure access to the natural resources it needs for its own development, including energy resources.
Already in 1990, Deng Xiaoping set out that China should avoid any foreign disputes and concentrate on economic development. According to Deng, China should ‘keep a low profile and bide its time, while getting something accomplished’. In the course of the 1990s and in the early years of the 21st century, China concluded border agreements with its neighbours to the North and to the West: Russia, Mongolia and the countries of Central Asia. According to some analysts, China secured its strategic rear to be able to concentrate on border disputes to its East and South.
Indeed, China still has border disputes with its Eastern and Southern neighbours Japan, India, Bhutan, North and South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Many of these disputes concern maritime borders in the South China Sea. Taiwan is a special case with complex implications. ‘Sovereignty and territorial integrity’ within its official borders is one of China’s ‘core interests’. The other two ‘core interests’ as laid out by State Councillor Dai Bingguo in 2009, are ‘safeguarding its basic systems and national security’ and ‘sustained economic and social development’.
Sovereignty is a very sensitive issue for Chinese public opinion and the authorities cannot appear to be weak in this area. However, if sovereignty may require assertive behaviour, economic and social development requires trade and investment, which in turn require stability and good relations with neighbours. Thus the Chinese authorities must find a balance between the ‘core interests’ of sovereignty on the one hand and of ‘economic development’ (stability) on the other.
China’s Good Neighbour Policy did not prevent it from clashing with the Philippines over the Mischief Reef atoll in the South China Sea in 1995. At the 1997 Communist Party Congress, President Jiang Zemin reaffirmed the principle of ‘shelving differences and finding common grounds for cooperation’, which had first been enunciated in 1955. This approach was confirmed once again at the latest Party Congress in 2007. It is now embedded in the overall vision of a ‘harmonious world’, itself a Confucian idea, which was put forward by President Hu in 2005. China also speaks of its ‘peaceful development’, in harmony with other countries.
The White Paper on China’s Peaceful Development of September 2011 reiterated that China pursued the goal of ‘peace and stability’ in the world and of a ‘harmonious Asia’ in particular. It aimed at ‘settling disputes over territory and maritime rights and interests with neighboring countries through dialogue and negotiation’. However, China’s actions at times sometimes seem to contradict the quest for peace and stability. Such actions seem to have intensified in recent times. For instance, China reacted very strongly and vocally to a border incident with Japan in September 2010. China also became more assertive on the South China Sea border disputes with Vietnam and other South-East Asian neighbours in summer 2011 after Vietnam and the Philippines tried to expand their offshore oil exploration.
In a disturbing development, an editorial appeared in an official newspaper in September 2011, just a few weeks after the publication of the White Paper, calling for a limited war to punish Vietnam and the Philippines against oil extraction in disputed waters. Similar editorials appeared in the following months. Are these the sign of isolated dissenting voices within the Chinese leadership, particularly among the more nationalist military? Will the civilian top leadership be able to keep these elements in check?
Alternatively, are recent events on the ground part of a consistent strategy? Did China’s top leadership decide to put sovereignty before stability? Some fear that China now feels strong enough to move beyond keeping a low profile and biding its time, as recommended by Deng Xiaoping, and to become more assertive with its neighbours. Is China’s leadership exposed to the temptation of encouraging nationalism and assertiveness in border disputes to deflect attention from growing social problems at home? China needs to convince its neighbours that that is not the case.
China broadly achieved its goal of preserving peace and stability in its neighbourhood. From 1995 until now, military conflicts were avoided, which allowed trade to increase greatly. In Central Asia, the 2005 ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan did not spread to the rest of the region, despite riots in Uzbekistan the same year and again in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. North Korea remained remarkably stable for decades. Only Afghanistan experienced continued instability. China ensured a steady flow of energy and other resources to fuel its internal economic development. China’s neighbours benefited greatly from Chinese trade and investment for their own economic development.
However, China’s neighbours show reluctance to conclude free trade agreements with China for fear of Chinese competition. For instance, Central Asian countries refused a free trade agreement with China for this reason. Furthermore, China’s support for unpopular regimes, for instance in Central Asia and in Myanmar, ensured stability but made China unpopular with their populations and with other countries.
Serious bouts of nationalism soured relations with Japan in April 2005 and again in September 2010. Japan essentially backed down and accepted Chinese demands in September 2010, but the dispute sent alarm bells ringing with the other neighbours that have territorial disputes with China, including India. Anti-China protests broke out in Vietnam in August 2011 after Hanoi accused Beijing of interfering with its oil exploration activities. Neighbours are wary about China’s growing military might.
Despite China’s involvement in Asian regional fora, its neighbours clearly do not seem reassured about China’s benign intentions. China declares that it wants to leave the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to future generations to solve, but many point to China’s recent occupation of atolls in disputed areas and talk of silent Chinese encroachment. Supported by the US, they question China’s preference for a bilateral approach to this issue and put forward a multilateral approach. At the November 2011 East Asia Summit, all 18 participants bar Cambodia and Burma raised the issue of maritime security in the South China Sea, against China’s wishes. China risks being encircled by hostile neighbours who turn to the US to balance Chinese power.
The EU and China both say they seek to promote the stability of their neighbourhoods. However, there seems to be an underlying contradiction in the ultimate goals of both. This contradiction is between ‘stability’ on one hand and ‘change’ on the other. The EU wants stability, but at the same time it wants its neighbours to change and to become democracies. China wants stability, but at the same time it wants to change the status quo to assert its sovereignty over the borders it claims.
The solution to this apparent contradiction is gradual change or ‘reform’ in the case of the EU. However, this is not always possible. The EU may not have brought about the Arab spring, but it indicated that the Arab spring was in line with its goals when it welcomed it as a change towards democracy for its Southern neighbours. The Arab spring was quite a traumatic change.
As for China, it may have decided that it is strong enough to expand its maritime borders through small, step-by-step actions. This may be prompted by domestic political considerations, as the leadership seeks to boost patriotism and national cohesion to defuse social tensions. However, China’s attempts to claim sovereignty in the East and South China seas may lead to frictions and to severe crises in the region.
The EU failed to preserve the stability of its neighbourhood with regard to the 2011 Arab Spring. However, the change brought about by the Arab Spring may well bring the Southern neighbours of the EU closer to EU democratic standards. With ups and downs, the EU has also been making progress with the democratisation and ‘socialisation’ of its Eastern neighbours, notably Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.
Arguably, China was more successful at preserving the stability of its own neighbourhood, because it broadly managed to preserve the status quo, to avoid conflict and to ensure a predictable business environment. However, the EU is not generally perceived as a threat and does not raise the hostility of its neighbours. China’s growing influence and military capabilities, combined with perceived encroachment and threats, make neighbours nervous and risk raising hostility towards it.
To counter this trend, China may need to moderate its nationalist rhetoric and to make compromises with its neighbours, notably in the South China Sea. It may also need to enhance its multilateral work, notably with ASEAN, and make stronger reference to international norms as a framework for relations with neighbours.
As China’s political system evolves and becomes more transparent, its neighbours may feel more reassured about China’s peaceful intentions. Skilful Chinese public diplomacy may also help smooth relations. China may even draw inspiration from EU with its structured meetings with neighbours at many levels, which promotes networking and “socialisation” with neighbours.
However, one should not be naive: transparency, communication and networking are not sufficient per se to defuse tensions. As US past experience in Latin America shows, even a neighbour with a transparent political system may not be too popular with its neighbours if it is overwhelmingly powerful. There are bound to be tensions among neighbours in a region, if the largest neighbour is expanding its influence and if that neighbour is not a ‘post-modern’ entity like the EU but a ‘modern’ State that plays by the rule of sheer power politics.
Giovanni Cremonini is an official dealing with European Neighbourhood Policy coordination at the European External Action Service in Brussels. He also spent four years as Head of the political section of the EU Delegation in Beijing. The opinions expressed in this article are solely his personal ones and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the EU. Giovanni.CREMONINI@eeas.europa.eu