Dec 2, 2021 - World

U.S. and EU signal "converging" views on China

Biden and Ursula von der Leyen
President Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. and the European Union are adopting "increasingly convergent" views on the threat posed by the Chinese government, according to senior Biden administration officials, deepening a trend that could tilt the scales in an era of great power competition.

Why it matters: European leaders were initially wary of President Biden's campaign to rally a coalition of U.S. allies to challenge China, hoping to duck a confrontation between the bloc's two largest trading partners. But the winds in Europe seem to be shifting, in part due to Beijing's growing belligerence.

Driving the news: The U.S. and EU released a lengthy joint statement on Thursday pledging "continuous and close contacts" to "manage our competition and systemic rivalry with China responsibly."

  • The statement followed the second high-level U.S.-EU Dialogue on China, led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman — who has been tipped as State's point person on China — and EU diplomat Stefano Sannino.
  • A day earlier, the European Commission unveiled a €300 billion ($339 billion) "Global Gateway" development program designed to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative. The premise is similar to Biden's "Build Back Better World" initiative.

Meanwhile the incoming German government — which mentioned Taiwan for the first time ever in its coalition agreement — is expected to move away from Chancellor Angela Merkel's pro-business, "dialogue-first" approach, says Noah Barkin, an EU-China analyst with Rhodium Group.

  • "We Europeans shouldn't make ourselves smaller than we are," Germany's incoming foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, told a German newspaper this week. "China has massive interests on EU market. We should use leverage of common market much more strongly."

Flashback: A year ago, Merkel was pushing to finalize a major EU-China investment deal over objections from the incoming Biden administration.

  • That deal was torpedoed when — in response to relatively modest human rights sanctions from the EU on Chinese officials — Beijing blacklisted several EU lawmakers.
  • China hawks in the EU were emboldened by the response, and relations have been slowly degrading ever since.

Between the lines: "The mood is shifting in Europe, but slowly and not at the same pace in every member state," Raphaël Glucksman, a lawmaker who chaired the European Parliament's first-ever official delegation to Taiwan, told Axios in a recent interview.

  • Some EU countries are happy to embrace the hardline U.S. approach China — or, in the case of Lithuania, go even further. Beijing downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania this week after the Baltic nation allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius.
  • Other member states like Hungary, which has built close ties with China, may continue to act as a spoiler in the EU's consensus-driven foreign policy.
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