Joe Biden’s European diplomatic blitz will have China woven ‘throughout every meeting’

·6-min read

While most of Europe’s top leaders rooted for a Joe Biden victory in last year’s election, his first months as America’s president have left some of them frustrated and anxious.

He has maintained some of former president Donald Trump’s least popular policies, including travel bans on European citizens and tariffs on EU-made goods, while a sudden unilateral pledge to remove intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines left Brussels scrambling.

Also of concern is his hawkish approach to China, seen by many to be even more hardline than Trump, but delivered with a smile and a rhetorical commitment to multilateralism to which EU leaders – keen to strike a more balanced approach towards Beijing – find it difficult to say no.

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“It is important to underscore the fact that Europeans, when we talk to embassies and chancelleries across both western and central eastern Europe, are feeling slightly disappointed, I think, in the first few months of the Biden demonstration on certain aspects,” Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Centre at the Atlantic Council, said on a webinar last week.

On Wednesday, Biden will touch down in Europe on his initial overseas trip as president for the first EU-US Summit since 2014, the first in-person G7 Summit since 2019 and the first in-person Nato Summit since 2018.

China will be high on the agenda. In a pre-trip press briefing, the National Security Council’s senior director for European affairs, Amanda Sloat, said there would be “three ‘C’s’ across a lot of what we’re going to see next week, including Covid, climate and China”.

Or, as former US defence official Barry Pavel put it, “the issue of China will be woven throughout every single meeting on his agenda”, which includes one with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week.

Wary of how Biden’s first four-plus months have been perceived across the pond, his aides and analysts alike expect a softening in tone, with more focus on bridge-building than outward aggression.

Boris Johnson urged to put Hong Kong on G7 agenda

“I think the Biden administration is going to be pushing for strong language and hard commitments, but I think it has realised that it will be easier to get Europe on board if the G7 is spinning a positive economic story, rather than a defensive sort of anti-China narrative,” said Noah Barkin, an analyst of EU-China relations at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

At the heart of the EU’s anxiety lies lingering fear that three years down the road, some form of Trumpian isolationism returns to the US – that Biden, rather than Trump, is the blip in America’s historical timeline.

This was reflected in the EU-China investment deal, which was concluded in December but buried by the European Parliament in May, and which was seen by Brussels as a crucial way to strike out in “strategic autonomy” from Washington’s hawkish China policy.

The Villa La Grange in Geneva will be the site of the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on June 16. Photo: AFP
The Villa La Grange in Geneva will be the site of the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on June 16. Photo: AFP

Comments from EU Council President Charles Michel this week showed that despite the deal’s woes, top officials still support it and, by virtue of that, the notion that it’s better to deal with China within certain parameters than in a no-holds-barred environment.

“I know that there’s a democratic debate in Europe on the question of this investment agreement, but I’m convinced personally that what’s on the table is a huge step in the right direction,” he said on Monday.

It is expected, then, that while China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will certainly feature on the G7 and Nato agendas, much of the messaging that follows will be indirect.

China-EU investment deal ‘huge step in right direction’, Brussels chief says

The cornerstone of the G7 is expected to be a “green” rival to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a gargantuan infrastructure drive that has helped China increase its sphere of influence across the world. But even this is unlikely to reference the mainland.

The EU has long preferred this approach and has been moving to change its own trade and industrial policies in a way to counter China, without mentioning it by name.

In May, it proposed new rules to prevent subsidised firms from amassing strategic European assets and revamped its industrial policy to shore up the bloc‘s supply chains, in moves broadly aimed at countering China’s influence on the European economy.

Last week, after nine years of haggling, member states agreed on an international instrument that will push to give European companies the same access to third countries’ public procurement markets as foreign companies enjoy in Europe, again aimed at China without mentioning it.

In the coming week’s flurry of diplomatic activity, it is expected that the EU and US will make progress on a trade and technology council plan Brussels has been pushing for some time, make commitments to World Trade Organization reform measures, and address the Boeing-Airbus tariff dispute remaining from the Trump era.

At the G7, host Britain will push economic resilience, joint Covid recovery plans, bolstering democracy and supply chain protection rather than too much direct focus on China.

“The UK‘s G7 presidency is very focused on economic resilience and that means supply chains and export controls, and all these nitty gritty elements of economic statecraft, as we call it, that are being rolled up rolled out in real time on the global stage,” said Julia Friedlander, former director for the EU at the US National Security Council, now with the Atlantic Council.

But Beijing, said Barkin, underpins it all.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to reporters outside the White House after meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday. Photo: AFP
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to reporters outside the White House after meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday. Photo: AFP

“There are other big issues – the pandemic, climate change, the economic recovery – but China is going to be at the very centre of all of these meetings. I think this is really a first test of whether multilateral signals on China can be sent, of how feasible collective action in pushing back against China is,” he said.

Judging by comments from Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday, the messaging from next Monday’s Nato Summit may be less discreet.

“We need to engage with China on issues like arms control and climate change, and therefore China is not an adversary,” Stoltenberg said, but “they don’t share our values,” he added, in a webinar previewing Biden‘s trip.

But even here, analysts expect more symbolic gestures on China than action taken.

Andrew Bishop, global head of policy research at public affairs firm Signum Global Advisers, wrote: “The G7 and Nato summits will be strong on symbolism but constrained by varying degrees of commitment to publicly confront China and Russia, as well as by a relative mismatch between ends and means.”

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