Biden seeks to unite allies on China

President Biden departs for his first trip abroad
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President Biden will try to unite allies behind a common approach to addressing a rising China when he travels to Europe on his first overseas trip as commander in chief.

Biden won’t be meeting with Chinese officials, but Beijing will be on the agenda across meetings with the Group of Seven (G-7), NATO and European leaders as the White House looks to make the case that democracies can deliver over autocracies.

The G-7 is expected to announce an initiative to finance infrastructure in the developing world as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Biden and European leaders will discuss how to push back on China’s economic practices.

Biden has described his domestic agenda — including his $2.25 trillion jobs plan to invest in infrastructure and tackle climate change — as necessary in order to win the competition with China in the 21st century.

Before departing the Washington area Wednesday, Biden told reporters that the goal of his trip is to demonstrate to China and Russia that “Europe and the United States are tight.”

There is bipartisan support for U.S. policy that clamps down on China’s unfair and abusive practices and strengthens U.S. supply chains. On Tuesday, the Senate approved the Endless Frontier Act, a bill spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would boost U.S. research and development in order to outcompete China, in a 68-32 bipartisan vote. 

While the Biden administration has sought major shifts in policy from the Trump administration in a variety of areas, Biden has not done so when it comes to China. There have been some shifts in rhetoric, but Biden has largely continued the tough-on-China approach of the prior administration. He has kept tariffs on Beijing in place, called out aggressive behavior in cyberspace and unfair trade practices and punished China over human rights abuses.

Last week, Biden expanded a Trump-era order to prohibit U.S. investments in Chinese defense and surveillance firms connected to repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, activists in Hong Kong and others throughout the world.

At the same time, Biden has put a premium on alliances and working with international partners is a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

“Trump was right to call China out but wrong not to do so in cooperation with other major economies,” argued Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs on former President Obama’s National Security Council. “The U.S. will have much more success pushing back against unfair Chinese trade practices if it does so in unison with other major economies.”

China is expected to be a key but not dominant topic during Biden’s meetings in Europe, but officials have signaled that Beijing’s activity will be an undercurrent of all of the conversations.

Biden will meet first with G-7 leaders in Cornwall, England, before traveling to Brussels to attend the NATO summit and a U.S.-European Union summit. He will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva at the end of the trip, at a time when Russia is enjoying close relations with China.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the G-7 leaders will “announce a new initiative to provide financing for physical, digital and health infrastructure in the developing world,” which he further described as a “high standard, climate-friendly, transparent, and rules-based alternative to what China is offering.”

During the U.S.-EU summit, Sullivan said, officials will focus on “aligning our approaches to trade and technology so that democracies and not anyone else — not China or other autocracies — are writing the rules for trade and technology for the 21st century.”

While there are areas of common agreement, such as intellectual property rights, strengthening domestic supply chains and human rights, the coming week’s conversations are likely to be just the opening salvo in the Biden administration’s effort to develop a coordinated approach to China.

“I don’t think that there is a broad-based consensus,” said Kupchan.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters following a meeting with Biden on Monday that the alliance needs to uphold the “rules-based international order” to counter China’s aggression in the Asia Pacific while also engaging with Beijing on issues like trade and arms control.

“China will soon have the biggest economy in the world. They already have the second largest defense budget, the biggest navy, they’re investing heavily in advanced military capabilities and they don’t share our values,” Stoltenberg said.

Edward Alden, an expert in economic competitiveness and trade at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that both the U.S. and European countries are worried about losing ground to China in the area of technology and that there is space for cooperation on “decoupling” from China as a result.

“One of the striking things about the Biden approach on China is the administration is very domestic-focused,” Alden said. “I think there’s a lot of commonality in the concerns that the U.S. and Europe have right now.”

But while the European Union may be willing to cooperate with the U.S. on reducing dependence on China, European countries are less likely to be supportive of further trade sanctions on Beijing given that they are more reliant on the Chinese market, particularly manufacturing. For instance, Germany’s largest trading partner for five straight years has been China.

The White House on Tuesday directed the Commerce Department to consider possible tariffs on neodymium magnets, of which China is a leading manufacturer.

“I think the big challenge is the European Union needs the Chinese market more than the United States does,” said Alden. “The Europeans are more vulnerable to Chinese trade sanctions than the United States. That is going to continue to cause a little more reluctance on the European side to turn the screws too tightly on China.”

Lisa Curtis, who was senior director for South and Central Asia on former President Trump’s National Security Council, said that Biden’s biggest challenge will be the wariness on the part of European countries that the U.S. could return to the “America First” approach to foreign policy adopted under Trump.

“Europe is more inclined than it was four years ago to adopt its own foreign policy strategies. The trick for Biden will be in tapping into the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy that was announced in April and finding the convergences between the U.S. and European approaches to the region,” Curtis said.

Tags Charles Schumer China China competitiveness Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Russia United Kingdom Vladimir Putin
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