20/11/2013 05:23 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

EU Must Seize Landmark Summit to Frame Long-Term Vision With China

The 2013 EU-China Summit takes place on Thursday 21st November in Beijing on the 10th anniversary of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two. This high level meeting is especially crucial for Europe, not least given that it is the first since the landmark Chinese leadership transition in March.

It is widely anticipated that the summit will be a launch pad for negotiations on a EU-China investment agreement. This would reportedly consolidate bilateral investment agreements between EU countries into a single deal.

This is a good start, but much more is needed. Success for the summit would be nothing short of a long-term vision or roadmap for the future of bilateral economic relations over the next decade.

This is important for the EU, in particular, for two main reasons. Firstly, the opportunity for Europe in China is growing fast. Only last week, following highly significant talks in Beijing of top Chinese Communist officials, President Xi Jinping announced the most sweeping package of economic, social and legal reforms in China in decades. This is just the latest signal that this is a country that is most definitely 'open for business'.

The second reason is that Europe's own future as a world-leading innovation hub is increasingly challenged by the rise of China. If Europe is to retain its economic pre-eminence, it must act urgently now to 'lock-in' much greater science and technology-led business collaboration with China before it is too late.

Indeed, a 'one-time-only' opportunity is arising to move EU-China scientific and technological ties on to a different level. However, this window will last perhaps only 5-10 years before China's innovation system approaches, and perhaps overtakes, that of Europe. Seizing this historic opportunity, while there still exists mutual bilateral interest, requires a fundamental shift in the scale of European thinking and effort.

Understanding the fleeting nature of this opportunity requires an appreciation of the rapidity of China's emergence as a science and technology superpower. It is spending much more on research and development, and has also quickly become the world's second largest producer of scientific knowledge, as measured by the number of research publications.

To be sure, China's overall scientific position right now is sometimes exaggerated. Concerns persist, for instance, about whether its educational system sufficiently encourages individual creativity (often key in forging scientific breakthroughs), lack of systems thinking, and whether Chinese enterprises are capable of absorbing so much research.

Such issues mean the scale of China's future achievement is uncertain. But, it is indisputable that we are witnessing the dawn of a new science and technology world order.

The era of North American and European scientific dominance is ending, with fundamental implications not just for the global economy but also geopolitics. Secondly, the diffusion of scientific expertise is helping create a globalised commons of knowledge which China's millions of scientists and engineers are well placed to tap into.

This transformation is, in turn, catalysing a more collaborative and trans-border model of cooperation which will redefine the research and development world of the 21st century. The key opportunity is for China is to continue moving up the value chain. Its firms will become innovation powerhouses and rivals to European counterparts. We will ignore this at our peril.

How should Europe secure the prize of locking in collaboration with China before our opportunity disappears?

Firstly, every link of the innovation chain from research to commercialisation must be strengthened, including through the Europe 2020 strategy. We also must give greater urgency to national initiatives to reform research and development and innovation systems.

At this crucial point, however, it will not be enough for national and EU leaders to endlessly debate plans. The time for talking is over. We must act urgently and what is required includes sound, detailed budgeting to facilitate successful implementation.

Europe must particularly capitalise on existing strengths and find synergies between Chinese growth needs, and the potential and objectives of European industry, research and consultancy. Europe's strengths include exceptionally high quality of research; ability to work in interdisciplinary fashion (which makes research increasingly effective); and a very successful international corporate sector with many world-leading specialities.

If Europe can raise its game and step up to the historical challenge it confronts, compelling value propositions can be developed for China in virtually all fields of science and research. This includes biotechnology, medical technology, nano-electronics and embedded systems, pharmaceuticals, and creative and design.

The challenges are real, but if we can surmount them, the prizes will be stronger bilateral partnerships; locking in China to world trade and investment rules; and a new foundation stone for sustainable growth. As Europe continues to struggle from a long economic downturn, will our leaders seize the opportunity, or let it slip?