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In Historic Shift, Biden Aligns Allies on China

But can he get them to act, too?

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a post-summit press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 14.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a post-summit press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 14. OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe last week was rightly heralded as a success. Biden played the role of a national symbol more than U.S. presidents usually do: A long-lost friend returned to the global stage, just as he promised his country would do. And who could ignore the expressions of relief—even joy—on the faces of global leaders. It was the return of the prodigal superpower.

But Biden’s trip was more than just a family reunion. At the G-7, then at NATO, and finally at a summit with the European Union, Biden made a coordinated and consistent push on some key policy objectives: tackling the coronavirus pandemic, laying the foundations for a fair economic recovery, addressing cyberattacks and emerging technology challenges, and dealing with the challenges to democratic values, economic fairness, peace, and security that increasingly emanate from China. That last theme—how to handle China—was the most politically sensitive and likely the most difficult to negotiate with partners.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe last week was rightly heralded as a success. Biden played the role of a national symbol more than U.S. presidents usually do: A long-lost friend returned to the global stage, just as he promised his country would do. And who could ignore the expressions of relief—even joy—on the faces of global leaders. It was the return of the prodigal superpower.

But Biden’s trip was more than just a family reunion. At the G-7, then at NATO, and finally at a summit with the European Union, Biden made a coordinated and consistent push on some key policy objectives: tackling the coronavirus pandemic, laying the foundations for a fair economic recovery, addressing cyberattacks and emerging technology challenges, and dealing with the challenges to democratic values, economic fairness, peace, and security that increasingly emanate from China. That last theme—how to handle China—was the most politically sensitive and likely the most difficult to negotiate with partners.

Even before his often racism-laced response to the coronavirus pandemic, former U.S. President Donald Trump had launched a unilateral trade war and frequently indulged in fiery rhetoric about China. In addition to warning about the economic consequences of a tit-for-tat tariff war, many who shared concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness and unfair trade practices pointed out that Trump’s approach was doomed to be ineffective. If the United States wants to put pressure on China, the critics said, it needs to work with partners and allies rather than going it alone. But instead, Trump alienated many of them—repeatedly attacking NATO, petulantly snubbing German Chancellor Angela Merkel by withdrawing U.S. troops, and imposing new tariffs on European partners.

At the same time, notwithstanding the EU’s 2019 recognition of China as a “systemic rival,” it wasn’t entirely clear that U.S. allies in Europe were ready for a coordinated approach toward Beijing. As a candidate, Biden had repeatedly committed to renewing trans-Atlantic ties and working with Europe on a shared approach to China, yet Merkel used Germany’s EU presidency to push for completion of a new investment agreement with China only weeks before Biden’s inauguration. In Berlin and elsewhere, many Europeans have expressed a desire to remain “neutral” in what they see as a growing and lasting contest between the United States and China.

[For more on the growing rivalry between the United States and China, check out the latest episode of Global Reboot, which features a discussion between Kevin Rudd and FP’s Ravi Agrawal.]

Against this history, Biden’s trip was a first test of whether or not his administration could execute a change in Washington’s approach on China—from confronting China alone to rallying partners and allies by taking on the role of cooperator-in-chief.

For Washington, it was a win to have NATO, the cornerstone of the United States’ network of alliances, acknowledge the challenge posed by China.

Joint statements and communiques are not particularly sexy topics for media coverage. But they are the road maps by which constellations of international actors chart their future work. And last week, at the G-7, NATO, and EU summits, Biden and his team achieved an unprecedented degree of alignment on China.

At NATO, 30 allies agreed that “[we] will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance. … China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.” The alliance’s members also called on NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to develop a new strategic concept for adoption at the next year’s summit in Madrid. For Washington, it was a win to have NATO, the cornerstone of the United States’ network of alliances, acknowledge the challenge posed by China and expand its predominantly trans-Atlantic focus.

This followed the G-7’s focus on China’s human rights failures, in addition to the challenges from Beijing on security and rule of law: “we will promote our values, including by calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law,” the summit’s communique reads. That is a step up from the last G-7 in-person summit in 2019, which merely noted the Joint Declaration and Basic Law and called for violence to be averted, rather than actually calling for rights and freedoms to be respected. And the last summit statement contained no reference to the Chinese campaign against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which both Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said constitutes genocide.

Finally, the joint statement from the U.S.-EU summit included a mutual pledge to coordinate policies and, most remarkably, echoed the G-7 in making a direct reference to China’s menacing behavior in the Taiwan Strait. That had never before been mentioned in a joint statement between a U.S. president and the EU leadership. While the United States has historically seen NATO as the main forum for developing a common trans-Atlantic approach to security issues, the EU has significant economic leverage with China. Joining the EU in a statement on the security of shipping routes and Taiwan sent a clear signal to Beijing about the shared U.S. and European concern about recent aggressive actions that could portend a Chinese effort to revise the status quo.

These statements are much more than rhetoric. Multilateral organizations and forums mainly operate on consensus. As the number of countries involved increases, so does the difficulty of reaching consensus. (I speak with some authority here as a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a group with 57 nations around the table!) Any experienced multilateral diplomat has a story—or several—about the seven hours of negotiations it took to settle a dispute about where to place a comma or whether a verb tense should be past or present. It’s not an efficient way of making decisions, and it may be an inappropriate way of coordinating collective action in many cases. But the flip side of the onerous nature of reaching consensus is that once it is reached, it carries the force of a universally and equally binding decision. There’s no participant who can say, “I didn’t vote for it, so I am only half-committed.” This is especially valuable when the document in question is a statement of principle to guide future actions.

Biden’s success in getting key partners and allies to put in writing their joint commitment to work together on tough issues related to China was therefore not just a diplomatic nicety but a real achievement. It was the fruit of dedicated work by U.S. negotiators and their counterparts, and watched closely by the Chinese government. These joint statements will give a useful reference point to U.S. diplomats and cabinet members working to build out a coordinated approach with trans-Atlantic partners in the months and years ahead.

Of course, that is the test that remains in front of Biden and his team. Having gotten allies and partners to agree, in broad strokes, on a shared way forward on China, can the administration hold Europeans to their word and implement a policy agenda that addresses Beijing’s challenges to trans-Atlantic values, peace, and prosperity? To translate words into action, the Biden administration will have to address—in public and behind-the-scenes diplomacy—the remaining tentativeness in some European countries about taking a firmer line with China. Ramping up intelligence sharing on China may help bring governments along. But as Biden rolls out many of his ambassadorial picks for European capitals over the coming weeks and months, he will need to charge his diplomats with making sophisticated arguments to the European public about the dividends—such as fairer trade and shared prosperity—of a coordinated trans-Atlantic approach and about the need to defend democracy in the face of assertive and technologically enabled authoritarians.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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