Hidden away behind the Financial Times’ subscription wall, Quentin Peel’s column today provides an excellent summary of the EU decision to end the arms export ban on China.

Peels says that for China the issue is mainly loss of face. China does not want to be seen as just another rogue state. For the United States, he argues, this is far more about increased risk to its forces in the region than it is about human rights.

But, Peel asks, “what is the EU grand strategy in China?”

It is a good question … But it suggests a misunderstanding of the way the EU works. For, unlike in America, the driving force in EU foreign policy is reactive, not pro-active. There is no “grand plan” towards China, at least not in the US sense of geopolitical strategy. This is not about trying to create a “multi-polar” world to counterbalance the sole superpower. It is fundamentally about trying to do business and reacting to events.

That is not to say there is no strategic thinking involved. Jacques Chirac, the French president, who first put the issue on the EU agenda, does have a multipolar vision. It is not widely shared by the other EU leaders. They are far more concerned on two other fronts: boosting trade with the world’s most dynamic economy; and binding China into the international order of institutions, including the World Trade Organisation, before it seeks to be an alternative superpower to the US.

The pragmatists say it is nonsense to classify China with pariah states such as Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe, the only other countries subject to EU arms embargoes. They admit there has not been enough progress on human rights but they maintain that China today is a more liberal country than it was in 1989.

Unlike the US, Japan, and indeed Russia, the EU members do not have security interests in east Asia. They do not see China as a military rival. Nor do they have the same intimate political ties to Taiwan as Washington. The last time France sold arms to Taipei was in 1992.

The reality in Europe is that everyone wants to do business with China and no one wants to be left behind. That is an important reason why the UK has come off the fence and is backing the move. Another reason is that there is growing British resentment at the restrictions on US technology transfers to Europe.

But there is another political factor that counts. China is one of the few EU partners that grants equal importance to its dealings with the union as it does to bilateral relations with national capitals. In that regard, it differs both from the US and from Russia. China’s attitude recognises the role played by the EU in promoting and negotiating its membership of the WTO. In Brussels, officials also see a common interest in promoting “effective multilateralism”, rather than a world order based on the exclusive power of nation states.

Perhaps that is European wishful thinking. China is probably far more conscious of its nation status, and the leaders in Beijing do think in geopolitical terms. But the EU is condemned to think and act as it does by its own structure – a complicated decision-making process, rather than a single entity with clear strategies.

In the case of China, a clear EU strategy would have been to maintain the arms embargo because respect for human rights had not improved. Instead, competition for trade advantage has prevailed. But that is Europe: it is not threatening, only venal. A continent of shopkeepers.