The EU and China as Partners in Security – The Case of Transnational Threats



Analiza CIM no. 16/2012

Marzec 2012

The EU-China strategic partnership, signalised in a Commission Policy Paper “A maturing partnership – shared interests and challenges in EU-China relations” in September 2003 has been the first such relationship between the EU and an emerging power. Based on the 1985 Trade and Cooperation Agreement, it has steadily developed into a more comprehensive partnership, comprising 56 sectoral dialogues discussed on different executive levels. The rationale behind involvement of transnational threats (also known as asymmetric threats) into the EU-China strategic partnership discourse is a function of EU’s ambition to become a globally-acknowledged player in security and China’s anticipated position of a “responsible stakeholder”. This paper aims to examine current status of EU-China strategic partnership in the sphere of countering concrete transnational threats: terrorism, piracy, organised crime, cyber threats and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The following analysis is intended to prove that the EU-China cooperation in this particular domain is still in a nascent stage mainly because of highly diverging nature of parties involved as well as their interests and preferred modes of operation. The choice of these particular threats was motivated particularly by EU’s lack of capabilities deemed necessary for the EU to be regarded as an actor in conventional, “hard” security domain, but at the same time also by its growing interest and potential to counter specifically those asymmetric threats to European and global security.

1. Basis and structures for cooperation

Commitment to tackle asymmetric threats is well established in the 2003 European Security Strategy, while challenges posed by terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and organised crime feature equally in the 2002 China’s Position Paper on the New Security Concept.[1] More specifically from the point of view of EU-China strategic partnership, the Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia and the 2003 China’s EU Policy Paper provide respectively for stronger European presence in East Asian security complex and China’s cooperation with the EU in the sphere of combating terrorism and proliferation of WMD, but also for EU-China military-to-military exchanges.[2] Last but not least, the full spectrum of asymmetric threats analysed here features in the joint statements following each year’s EU-China summits.

Back in 2006 the EU and China established Strategic Dialogue Mechanism with an extensive structure for mutual exchange. Its levels and instances are the following:

  1. Annual Summits at the level of the Heads of State or Government;
  2. Annual meetings between the President of the European Commission, accompanied by members of the European Commission and the Chinese Prime Minister, accompanied by members of the State Council (nick-named „executive-to-executive” meetings);
  3. Regular political dialogue on strategic and foreign policy issues between the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy/Vice President of the Commission and the Chinese State Councillor responsible for foreign affairs (so called High-Level Strategic Dialogue);
  4. Ad Hoc Meetings between the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy/Vice President of the Commission and the Foreign Minister of China. These include annual meetings in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly sessions;
  5. Annual meetings of the EU and Chinese Political Directors;
  6. Annual meetings between the EEAS Director for Asia Pacific affairs and the Chinese counterpart on Asian and Pacific issues;
  7. Expert meetings at least once a year between EU and Chinese experts on international security, arms control, non-proliferation and export controls issues;
  8. Expert meetings at least once a year between EU and Chinese experts on the control of Small Arms and Light Weapons;
  9. Meetings between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of China and the Ambassadors from the EU posted in Beijing (twice a year);
  10. Meetings between the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy/Vice President of the Commission and the Ambassador of China to the EU (twice a year).[3]

This vast and diverse structure of dialogue facilitates a strong setting for possible exchange on different topics, including countering of transnational asymmetric threats.

2. Terrorism

China and the EU have signalised their strong commitment towards combating terrorism. Moreover, the 2003 China’s EU Policy Paper expressed the need to launch a high-level financial dialogue mechanism aimed inter alia at financing of terrorism and money laundering.[4] However, with regards to counter-terrorism the EU and China eventually agreed only on common efforts under the UN auspices and stressed the need for multilateral character of such endeavours. Consequently, only some rudimentary EU-China cooperation on combating terrorism happened to exist in the past, although now is unlikely to follow.[5] EU officials and practitioners agree that contrary to expectations, at the moment there is no cooperation in this field and no signs of intention to move towards an operational level.[6]

3. Organised crime

The primary venue for discussing crime-related issues are EU-China Regular High Level Consultations on fighting illegal migration and trafficking in human beings.[7] An associated legal achievement in this field is also an Agreement to enhance customs co-operation in monitoring trade and preventing trafficking and the diversion of drug precursors (so called “precursors agreement”, 2009).[8] However, apart from this agreement, there is no existing cooperation between the EU and China on drugs issue.[9] Chinese officials have also signalized their intentions to strengthen their exchanges with Europol.[10] Likewise, in 2006 Europol issued a document endorsing establishment of cooperation agreement with China for the purpose of curbing the activities of Chinese organised crime groups in the EU which remain preoccupied mostly with trafficking in human beings and counterfeit goods. Three EU member states have their police liaison officers posted in China specifically for this purpose.[11] Additionally, the EU organizes workshops and expert meetings for China’s Ministry of Public Security’s officials and thus builds a strategic relationship in the realm of public security. These exchanges have strong potential to involve cooperation on crime- and terrorism-related issues.[12]

4. Piracy

The EU and China actively cooperate in counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden; this is probably the most successful sphere of EU-China cooperation regarding asymmetric threats. Since 6 January 2009 China continuously deploys naval flotillas of two destroyers and a supply vessel. Characteristically, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sends only its most modern warships for this mission. Primary venues for EU-China operational exchange are the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia and the Crisis Management Staff-to-Staff Talks, initiated in July 2010. EU-China cooperation in this domain used to be very slow in the beginning and for the most part purely rhetorical; Chinese commanders were tasked only with convoying of commercial ships and were not observing the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor (IRTC).[13] However, once China assumed rotating presidency in SHADE (Shared Awareness and De-confliction), their attitude towards closer cooperation with EUNAVFOR Atalanta began to change, leading to current situation when the EU is satisfied with the overall level of cooperation. In March 2011 the first ever joint maritime exercise was conducted between EUNAVFOR and PLAN vessels.[14] Recently the Chinese side has also expressed its interest in holding a permanent co-chair of SHADE.[15] China’s stance on IRTC has also evolved and since 2010 PLAN permanently deploys at least one of its naval vessels for the protection of the corridor.[16] Moreover, commanders of the European and Chinese task forces hold frequent meetings focused on coordination of their actions.[17] Besides, in November 2009 China hosted an international conference on anti-piracy, attended by representatives from the EU.[18]

5. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction

In 2004 the EU and China signed Joint Declaration on Non-proliferation and Arms Control. This document provided for cooperation on the occasion of approaching review conference on Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both sides expressed their commitment to cooperate in the related UN bodies.[19] Nowadays dialogue on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs) takes place during the meetings of EU-China Crisis Management Staff-to-Staff Talks.[20] Importantly, the EU and China participate in a string of international regimes focused on specific non-proliferation endeavours and thus utilise their shared commitment to a multilateral approach to asymmetric threats.[21]

6. Cyber threats

China and the EU agreed to explore possibilities for cooperation on cyber security. But even though a possibility of future programmes on cyber security was mentioned for the first time by Catherine Ashton during the EU-China High Level Strategic Dialogue meeting in Budapest in May 2011, cooperation in this particular sphere remains in its nascent stage, still without an operational aspect.[22]

7. Assessment

It comes without saying that the reality of EU-China strategic cooperation in combating transnational threats does not mirror commitments provided for in official documents and political declarations. With a sole exception of joint anti-piracy efforts, the EU and China do not have a permanent operational cooperation in any other domain examined in this paper. The reasons for this interests-capabilities gap are multi-fold.

The first serious impediment appears on the EU side. The underdeveloped and malfunctioning nature of EU Common Security and Defence Policy undermines efforts towards more complex and effective approach to global threats to security. This particular sphere is still a domain of national governments and this makes it hard to coordinate an exchange on EU level.[23] Another obstacle are diverging perceptions of security. Whereas the EU focuses on combating transnational illicit networks, grass-root level causes of terrorism and piracy or countering specific channels of WMD proliferation, China expects cooperation in conventional security by eyeing especially military-to-military exchanges and lifting of a most criticised EU arms embargo. Here, China faces nothing more than simply a lack of respective military counterparts and structures on the EU level.[24] However, when issues of hard security are concerned, Chinese leaders resist any sort of policy recommendations from the outside regarding its national or regional points of contention such as Xinjiang or South China Sea.

In this context, one particularly important example of enhancement of EU-China dialogue on security in recent years was initiation of Crisis Management Staff-to-Staff Talks, undergone for the first time in July 2010. They were followed by a second meeting in China in September that year, with a third round in June 2011. Bodies involved in talks are European External Action Service’s Crisis Management and Planning Department along with EU Military Staff from the European side and representatives of China’s Ministry of Defence on the other. Issues raised during the talks centre on counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, joint military trainings, exchange of classified information, or dialogue on SALWs. Topics currently discussed as possible areas for future cooperation are participation in UN peacekeeping operations and disaster relief.[25]

Despite current difficulties, EU-China strategic cooperation in the sphere of security still has some viable chances for significant development. Both the EU and China are concerned with maintaining security in their increasingly interlinked neighbourhoods and expect the rise in intensity of transnational challenges. Concurrently, both actors are also beneficiaries of a period of peace, stability and positive outcomes of globalisation. Their mutual commitment to multilateralism, strengthening of international law and anti-terrorism efforts leaves a strong sense of common values and objectives.[26] Now, much more has to be done in order to arrange specific structures, to shift cooperation into an operational level and consequently to approach transnational threats in a truly unified way.

[1] European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World, Council of the European Union 2003, <> (21.11.2011). China’s Position Paper on the New Security Concept, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2002, <> (21.11.2011).
[2] Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia, Council of the European Union, <> (21.11.2011). China’s EU Policy Paper, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2003, <> (05.04.2011).
[3] “EU-China Political Dialogue,” Delegation of the European Union to China, <> (21.11.2011).
[4] China’s EU Policy Paper. . .
[5] Personal interview with an EU official, Brussels, 13.05.2011.
[6] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 18.05.2011.
[7] Sixth China-EU Summit Joint Press Statement, Council of the European Union 2003, <> (04.04.2011).
[8] “Customs: EU and China agreements to strengthen cooperation on protecting Intellectual Property Rights and on preventing illicit imports of chemical substances used for synthetic drug production,” Europa Press Releases Rapid, <> (04.04.2011).
[9] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 25.05.2011.
[10] China’s EU Policy Paper. . .
[11] “Europol Cooperation with China,” Council of the European Union, <> (22.11.2011).
[12] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 13.05.2011.
[13] Susanne Kamerling, Frans-Paul van der Putten, “Europe sails East, China sails West: Somali piracy and shifting geopolitical relations in the Indian Ocean,” in: Frans-Paul van der Putten, Chu Shulong (ed.), China, Europe and international security. Interests, roles and prospects (New York: Routledge 2011), 181-2.
[14] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 18.05.2011.
[15] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 09.06.2011.
[16] “Press Conference by Chief of Staff of European Union: Anti-Piracy Operation on Somali Coast”, 28.01.2010, United Nations, <> (21.11.2011).
[17] “Commanders of Chinese and European escort taskforces hold meeting,” Ministry of National Defence, The People’s Republic of China, <> (21.11.2011).
[18] “China hosts anti-piracy meeting,” BBC News, <> (21.11.2011).
[19] Seventh EU-China Summit Joint Press Statement, Council of the European Union 2004, < > (21.11.2011).
[20] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 18.05.2011.
[21] Alyson J. K. Bailes, Anna Wetter, “EU-China Security Relations: The ‘Softer’ Side,” in: David Kerr, Liu Fei (ed.), The International Politics of EU-China Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007), 165.
[22] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 18.05.2011.
[23] Gudrun Wacker, “The EU and East Asian security: Prepared for the future?” in: Putten, Chu, 124-5.
[24] May-Britt U. Stumbaum, “Europe’s views on China’s role in international security,” in: Putten, Chu, 9-15.
[25] Personal interview with an EEAS official, Brussels, 18.05.2011.
[26] Chen Bo, „Contrasts in the Security Concepts of China and the EU: The Perspective of a PLA Officer,” in: Kerr, Liu, 193-4.

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