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The world within which the EU and China have to deal with each other is changing. The unipolar moment is definitely fading and slowly giving way to an international system characterized by multilayered and culturally diversified polarity. This development has far-reaching consequences for the EU–China relationship; the more so since the EU and China have distinctive identities and define their value preferences differently. China is no longer the developing country it once was and is becoming more assertive by the day. Beijing is at the head of the world’s most successful economy and will weigh more and more heavily on global governance.1 Three decades of impressive economic growth have boosted the self-confidence of the Chinese leaders significantly. In Beijing, the notion that China should start taking on an attitude befitting a great power is gaining ground. China is taking up ever more space within various multilateral organizations and is setting up diplomatic activities throughout the globe. Moreover, Beijing has become more active in setting up its own multilateral channels to further its national interests and own norms. China no longer considers itself an outsider that should crawl back into its shell and steer clear of a global political system dominated by the West. All this puts into question the EU’s conditional policy towards China, which is based on the assumption that China can be socialized and persuaded to incorporate Europe’s post-modern values. The way ahead seems to be for Europe to opt for a more pragmatic approach, which takes stock of the changes in the underlying power and identity relations between the EU and China. The analysis of this paper will be developed at three levels. First, it examines the changes in the structure of international politics. To what kind of structure are we evolving and where do China and the EU fit in? Second, it takes a closer look at the respective identities of China and the EU and explicates the major differences between them. Finally, this study appraises the implications of the emerging multilayered and culturally diversified polarity for the further development of the EU–China relationship.
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