Preview: In the last decade, while undergoing its own reform through the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 which created a designated foreign affairs body across the 28 member
states, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission has also produced two major communications on relations with the People’s Republic of China. The first, in 2006, was issued at a time when the European Union (EU) was just recovering from its failure to lift the arms embargo on China, and was being criticised by Beijing because it had not accorded market economy status to a country that had become its largest trading partner. The second came out in 2016, at a time when the relationship had settled into a more pragmatic mould, though the continuing refusal to grant market economy status still rankled with the Chinese partners.
This essay will look in particular at the history of the relationship, and the ways in which this is reflected in the language in the two communications on the specific issue of values and defence of human rights. Defence of these have been, after all, a key part of the European project since its earliest period. It is written into its current constitution—to defend and promote rule of law, human rights and associated freedoms. How has the EU’s internal understanding of this key area developed over the period from 2006 to 2016, when it itself was undergoing crisis and transformation, and China was also rapidly developing, often in very unexpected ways?