The European Union’s expanding relationship with China now includes a much-needed “soft power” pillar: on April 18, both sides formally launch a “high level people-to-people dialogue” aimed at ensuring the EU-China conversation in more than just trade, business and global politics, questions already covered by existing EU-China high-level contacts.

Bringing people – students, academics, artists, journalists and especially young people – into the EU-China discussion is a good move. Officials, diplomats and business leaders have a prime role to play in promoting ties between nations. However, building real trust and confidence – an essential element in forging strong and stable ties – requires regular contacts and exchanges between non-state actors.

Given the “trust deficit” in EU-China ties, the need for more communication among people is essential. Differences in their political systems, values and interests mean that people in China and Europe are unlikely to see eye to eye on many questions.  But this diversity need not stop people from seeking to better understand each other.

Europeans are clearly impressed by China’s rise but opinion polls across Europe also show continuing public unease about the country’s political system, human rights, increased military spending and trade practices.

Europe’s economic troubles are also impacting on perceptions of China, with public opinion torn between a view of cash-rich China as a potential “saviour” for ailing European economies and fear that Beijing is planning to “buy up” European assets and use its expanding economic power to influence European policy.

Ingrid d’Hooge of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael) points out in her study “The Limits of China’s Soft Power in Europe,”that European views of China were favourable in the early years of the 21st Century, when people were optimistic about political reform in China and confident about economic opportunities.  Since late 2006, however, Europeans have been disappointed at lack of political reform in the country and worried about China’s international intentions.

Interestingly, however, Europeans differentiate between China as a country – in fact China’s government – and the Chinese people. “When asked how they view the Chinese people, the figures are far more favourable than those for China as a country,” d’Hooge says.

Chinese perceptions of Europe appear to be slightly more positive.  The EU has a “huge reservoir of goodwill” in China to tap into according to research conducted by the China Policy Institute of the University of Nottingham. But over 70 per cent of Chinese officials said their knowledge of the EU was insufficient.

A 2007 study by Chatham House points out that for many Chinese, “Europe simply does not exist as a political centre of power, especially compared with the US.”  Recently, Chinese media have been critical of expectations that emerging economies would come to the help of embattled Eurozone nations.

China’s former ambassador to the EU Song Zhe has criticised European media for failing to give a complete picture of Chinese realities, saying this creates “misunderstandings or even biased views on China”.  The key problem, he added, is that “Europeans just don’t know China well”.

Changing perceptions is not going to be easy.  Both the EU and China, however, possess the soft power tools – culture, education and diplomacy – needed to make friends and influence people.

China is trying very hard. Widely recognized by Chinese leaders as an important indicator of a country’s international status and influence, the cultivation of Chinese soft power is at the top of the state agenda.   China also has a huge cultural industry and since 2005, President Hu Jintao has promoted a “soft power initiative” aimed at increasing China’s global influence through cultural and language programmes.

Not surprising given its global popularity, China’s traditional culture is viewed by many Chinese policymakers as the most important resource for building soft power. The recent expansion of Confucius Institutes in Europe and elsewhere builds on this worldwide interest in China’s cultural traditions and language.

Beijing has also extended its media outreach through China Central Television (CCTV), the English-language versions of China Daily Weekly published in London and the Global Times.

European culture – traditional and modern – has a similar attraction worldwide. Unlike Chinese policymakers, however, the EU has yet to hammer out a complete strategic vision on the role of culture in EU-China relations or indeed, more generally, on the role of cultural cooperation and cultural diplomacy in EU foreign policy.

EU states will – and should – continue to focus on promoting their national cultural traditions. Yet, a joint EU strategy to promote European cultural interests would go a long way in boosting Europe’s soft power in China.

The questions the EU has to deal with are sensitive and complex. As EU Commissioner for Culture Androulla Vassiliou pointed out earlier this year, Europeans have to work out how to promote their creative and cultural industries at international level while safeguarding and fostering cultural diversity.

“How can we create synergies between diverse and strong cultural identities at EU level when engaging in cultural relations with third countries?” asked Vassiliou.

Cultural discussions with China should help the EU to find answers to some of these questions. A number of activities – film festivals, exhibitions and cultural performances, book fairs – set out as part of the current EU-China Year of Intercultural Dialogue should help create a stronger perception of European culture.

In addition to creating better understanding between the EU and China, the high-level people-to-people dialogue is also likely to contribute to a greater EU awareness of the potential for joint European cultural outreach.