The EU-China Energy dialogue: a win-win game


The EU-China Energy Dialogue took place shows the importance of energy in their bilateral relations. Both China and the EU are highly dependent on imports of fossil energy sources and respectively represent approximately 22 and 12.5 % of global energy consumption. They are faced with many similar challenges in the pursuit of energy security and cleaner energy.

The EU-China Energy Dialogue therefore covers the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy infrastructure, access to each other’s markets and reciprocal investment opportunities, and security of supply.

China and the European Union are the world’s largest importers of natural resources, which make both of them highly dependent on other countries.

During the last years China’s energy consumption has increased substantially. Since 1993, China became a net energy importer. Today, China’s energy consumption makes up over one- fifth of the world’s total, in which industrial use accounts for 70 percent. According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook, China is not only the biggest coal consumer and importer but also taking over the US as the world’s largest oil importer

The energy dialogue between China and the EU has a long tradition and is very advanced, compared with other energy dialogues of the EU. It is based on almost 30 years of cooperation history enshrined in the EU-China Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (1985) and started with cooperation in basic energy science. As early as 1994, the EU and China initiated bi-annual energy conferences between the European Commission and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. In 2005 the energy dialogue was initiated with the National Energy Administration (NEA) and six priority areas have since been identified for cooperation between the EU and China: renewable energies, smart grids, energy efficiency in the building sector, clean coal, nuclear energy and energy law. Furthermore, energy issues are discussed during the annual high level summits.

The year 2012 marked interesting developments and a clear uplifting of China-EU energy cooperation. The first China-EU High Level Meeting on Energy took place in May and for the first time, the EU Commission plus the 27 energy ministers of the EU Member States met with Chinese representatives in this format to enhance cooperation on energy issues. The EU- China Partnership on Urbanization and the Joint Declaration on Energy Security are milestones in the cooperation, as they were the first documents, which were agreed by all 27 Member States plus the European Commission with the Chinese side. It is remarkable that a dialogue on energy security has been initiated, which gives evidence that for the EU questions of the geopolitics of energy with China gained on importance. The EU discusses issues of Central Asian resources and the role of Russia in the region with its Chinese partners. Also, the question of how to engage China in international energy governance reached the political agenda. China was also keen on talking about global energy markets. The EU-China energy dialogue is the only one of EU- BICS dialogues that has resulted in the joint implementation of projects.

Germany is China’s most important trade partner among all EU member states. From all EU trade with China, the German share is about 29 percent. At the moment issues like energy efficiency, biogas, e-mobility and climate protection are on the agenda. Thus, the Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und Stadtentwicklung – BMVBS (now Bundesministerium für Verkehr und digitale Infrastruktur – BMVI) had signed a common declaration on cooperation on sustainable mobility, energy efficiency and emission reduction, and innovative transport technology with the Chinese Ministry for Science and Technology.


Being the world’s first and third largest energy consumers as well as the world’s top energy market players, it is inevitable for the EU and China to boost up energy cooperation. Under the current mechanism, mutual exchange and trust are rather far from being at strategic level.

Dialogue is a two-way process, not being the EU the only norm exporter. Also China has its own domestic agenda, demand and pride. It requests not to be treated as passive norm receiver but as a peer partner. Only through a real dialogue the EU can identify common interests with its partners. The EU has to learn to speak ‘with’ its partners instead of ‘to’ them.

The next step is concrete cooperation in the area of common interest. China desires tangible cooperation in order to secure its energy supply in a sustainable way. Chinese stakeholders urged for more tangible cooperation instead of pure talking. Noteworthy, China prefers state-to-state cooperation with individual Member States because it is easier and quicker to reach bilateral agreement with a single EU country and to move to concrete actions. Moreover, several stakeholders pointed out that China enjoyed a better leverage when the EU is divided in a negotiation. If the EU wants to play a more important role within the EU-China energy dialogue it has to offer China interesting cooperation project and serve as a manager of the EU Member State / European Union energy governance towards China.

Whilst understanding that sustainable supply is the prime objective in China’s energy policy, the EU can make itself a strategic partner of China by helping China to address its strategic need. Making China’s energy consumption cleaner and more efficient is not only benefiting China but also others, including the EU, which is a net energy importer and pioneer in the climate change fight. The results of the China-EU energy dialogue successfully identify the areas where strategic cooperation is needed: joint research and development in clean energy (especially wind and solar) technology and energy efficiency. The next task for the couple to become truly strategic partners in the energy field is to tackle identified obstacles; namely lack of mutual trust, barriers in market access for each others’ enterprises as well as weak coordination in each sides’ external energy policy.

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