One has to fight the feeling of disappointment at the outcome of the EU-China summit of April 9. There are genuine advances in the joint statement that was finally agreed in the wee hours. A comprehensive investment agreement by 2020 or earlier; a promised quick wrap-up of the treaty on geographical indications (100 protected origins that would benefit both European and Chinese agriculture); a commitment by China to discuss industrial subsidies in the context of a WTO reform, to improve its offer on a WTO public procurement agreement, and to oppose forced technology transfer. In fact, the statement holds the prospect of results on a host of other, more technical, agreements. It also lists the foreign policy issues on which both parties seem to agree in principle. By inference, and along with six mentions of "international law" and three of "multilateralism", the statement would seem to answer some of the European concerns voiced in the tense weeks after the EU’s March 12 communication branding China as a "systemic rival".
So why is it that we experience a feeling of déjà vu and at least partial let down? First of all, because, in the tradition of China’s public diplomacy, some statements simply do not ring true. "The EU and China reaffirm that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated". Beyond the sad howl of laughter that this claim will bring, there is papering over a fundamental divergence: China emphasizes social and economic rights within the context of government action, and certainly not the rights of the individual. In fact, the claim is followed by a telling qualification: cooperation will happen "in particular in UN fora": that is where China has been most successful at engineering coalitions to fight political human rights. This is certainly not enough of a criterium, as the EU has demanded for the first time, to evaluate the "sincerity" of China. To be fair, the EU is also emphasizing lists of detainees.
Another case concerns maritime issues: China, the EU and its member states "respect the maritime order based on international law and uphold freedoms of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all states in accordance with international law". This is in marked retreat to the declaration of G7 foreign affairs ministers adopted only 2 days before the summit with China. On Asia-Europe connectivity (e.g. Silk Road and European funds), cooperation will "comply with established international norms and standards, as well as the law of the countries benefitting from the projects, while taking into account their policies and individual situations". Which will it be ?