Mar 25, 2021 - World

Biden rallies old alliances behind new mission: Challenging China

Illustration of two different hands joining together a white and yellow star

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Biden has made it his mission to reinvigorate America’s alliances and mobilize them for a new purpose: competition with China. 

The big picture: Biden views U.S.-China competition as the paramount foreign policy challenge of our time, and he considers America’s alliances to be its most significant advantage over Beijing.

The state of play: Shortly before Biden took office, the EU and China sealed an investment pact — over Biden's tacit objections — that seemed to augur poorly for the prospects of a united trans-Atlantic front on China. Things have changed dramatically.

  • Beijing's furious response this week to EU sanctions over its abuses in Xinjiang — coordinated with the U.S., but limited in scope — could imperil the ratification of that trade pact.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. and EU yesterday announced a new forum to coordinate on China policy.

What they're saying: Secretary of State Tony Blinken lingered on the China challenge during remarks at a NATO gathering on Wednesday, noting that Beijing was “actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share.”

  • Blinken added that the U.S. wouldn’t “force our allies into a ‘us or them’ choice with China” — something allies feared Donald Trump was attempting to do — but said it was time for Western alliances to demonstrate “what they stand for,” namely human rights and democracy.
  • China was also on the agenda when Biden met virtually with the leaders of the EU member states this afternoon. 

Between the lines: European leaders are growing increasingly suspicious of Beijing, but most remain wary of a prolonged struggle that would pit the EU against its top trading partner.

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for one, has focused more on economic synergies with China than on systemic rivalry.
  • Some NATO allies, meanwhile, would rather the alliance keep its attention focused on Russia.

Blinken weighed his words carefully in Brussels, noting that "our allies have complex relationships with China that won’t always align perfectly."

  • But he argued that if like-minded democracies could work together to develop technology and infrastructure, and to set the rules of the road on trade, "we can outcompete China or anyone else on any playing field."
  • In what might be described as an "all democracies on deck" approach, Blinken said America's various alliances shouldn't operate in "siloes" but pool their various strengths.
  • One area of increased cooperation could be intelligence. The Five Eyes — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. — who spent decades sharing intelligence on the Soviet Union, have already become a major thorn in China’s side, notes Axios’ China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.
  • And while there's little desire in Europe to join an "anti-China bloc," there's a clear willingness to enter "issue-based coalitions" on everything from economic practices to human rights, says Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Those coalitions will also involve America's allies and partners in Asia. Blinken made a point to travel to South Korea and Japan earlier this month before sitting down for a frosty meeting with Beijing's top diplomats.

  • Biden also convened the first leader-level gathering of "the Quad," an informal partnership with Australia, India and Japan.
  • That grouping first met in 2007, but it's grown much closer as its members — particularly Australia and India, which once worried that the club might antagonize China — have butted heads with Beijing.
  • A similar trend may now be on display in Europe.

The other side: That's a worrying prospect for the Chinese government, which has already lashed out at U.S. attempts to form “enclosed small cliques" in Asia and had seen the U.S.-Europe rift as a major benefit of the Trump era.

Behind the scenes: “Chinese officials come through Europe and pretty much say, ‘look, there’s a lot that we can swallow, we just don’t want to see you team up with the United States. If you do that, it’s going to be a problem,'" Small says.

  • While China can look at the trend lines in terms of competition with the U.S. and feel relatively confident, he adds, "If it’s China taking on the U.S. and its partners and allies in a kind of loosely coordinated manner, then China is still massively on the back foot.”

While China has built relationships with countries all over the world, they appear shallow when compared to the decades-old U.S. alliances.

  • Before the EU, U.S., U.K. and Canada announced their sanctions over Xinjiang, Beijing trumpeted the fact that 64 countries had backed a statement at the UN supporting Beijing's actions there.
  • Yes, but: The statement did not actually list the countries that signed on, a UN spokesperson tells Axios.
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