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A mission for three ambassadors

A mission for three ambassadors
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The presidency of Joe Biden gives new hope to Americans and Europeans alike that the transatlantic alliance can be resuscitated after four years of trade wars and other provocative actions taken by the last administration. The agenda to rebuild ties is broad, but China has now risen to the top of the list. On both sides of the Atlantic, the government officials and policy analysts have been crafting plans for concerted actions that will address the military aggression and predatory economic practices of China.

Before those plans can move forward, Biden must deal with decisions that created the hurdle to greater collaboration between the United States and Europe on China. The diplomatic instinct would be to not challenge these decisions but to paper them over. But that will send the signal that there is no chance for a coherent transatlantic plan to counter China while Beijing leverages economic and political divisions in Europe to its benefit. One of the critical platforms to challenge that view will be the Senate hearings of the nominees for the ambassador posts in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.

For the ambassador to France, the focus needs to be on how the nominee can mitigate the desire of Emmanuel Macron for European autonomy over greater collaboration with its North American allies on China. Mostly silent on the Chinese human rights abuses and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, the French government continues to think engagement with China should be the path forward. The recent promise of Huawei to build a plant to manufacture mobile supplies in France, along with a pledge to open up certain sectors for French investments in China, are now touted as evidence of the success of that policy. But such success is a low price for Beijing to pay for its larger strategy of fraying transatlantic ties.

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For the ambassador to Germany, the focus should be on the new role of Huawei in the market. While many German officials have voiced concern about allowing this Chinese company to be inside their own 5G strategy, Angela Merkel has refused to exclude Huawei for the final framework. It reflects the tremendous dependency on China that major German firms have allowed over the last two decades. This is the political context that the new ambassador to Germany will face trying to raise concern about Chinese military aggression, human rights violations, and harmful trade practices that continue to undermine smaller German enterprises.

For the ambassador to the European Union, all of these above issues are relevant, however, the major challenge will be to convince the European Parliament to vote down the investment deal with China that was signed at the end of 2020. Promoted by France and Germany, the deal gives the European Union a marginal increase in investment access in China, limits what can be done to reduce any Chinese investments in the largely open European market, and does not address Chinese labor and environmental abuses for any concrete fashion. It in no way levels this economic playing field that should be the first order in any investment deal with China. The last minute concessions made by China were likely made to seal the deal and to head off the new administration in the United States from working with European officials to establish a stronger combined approach.

Most ambassadors to the European Union tend to focus on the European Commission and its role in shaping policy. The next one must understand the European Parliament and its processes. There are indications that the European Parliament would in fact be open to voting down the proposed investment deal. In recent years, as public opinion of China has become more negative, members from all the major political factions have come together to denounce Chinese atrocities against the Uyghurs. They have even passed legislation for greater scrutiny on the Chinese investments with firms sensitive to security issues. The next ambassador will have to understand how to support officials who have opposed the deal without raising concern about American intervention in European politics.

The hearings on these diplomatic posts will be a perfect time to signal to Europe the bipartisan concern not only around Chinese behavior but also recent decisions in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels that will make the solutions to the problems even more difficult. It is not unusual for diplomatic posts to be handed to major fundraisers and political cronies. However, if Biden and his team are serious about building an effective transatlantic strategy on China, they should think twice about doing so this time around.

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. Craig Kennedy served as former president of the German Marshall Fund.