US, EU must prepare for ‘long-term strategic competition with China’, says President Joe Biden

US, EU must prepare for 'long-term strategic competition with China', says President Joe Biden

Jacob Fromer and Mark Magnier

·7 min read
 
 

The European Union and United States must prepare for “long-term strategic competition with China“, US President Joe Biden said in a foreign policy address on Friday, one of the clearest signs yet of how the new US administration views and intends to engage with Beijing.

“How the United States, Europe and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake,” Biden said on Friday, in one of his first foreign policy speeches as president, delivered virtually to the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany.

“Competition with China is going to be stiff,” he said, adding that the US and its allies in Europe have an obligation to stand up for democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world.

 

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Biden’s speech comes just under one month into his presidency, at a moment when US-China relations remain ice-cold in the aftermath of the Trump administration – a period in which the world’s two largest economies clashed with increasing intensity over trade, human rights and most recently the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the early weeks of the new administration, observers in China and elsewhere have been closely watching for any signals about how Washington may intend to engage with Beijing under Biden, who served as US vice-president for eight years between 2009 and 2017, when the relationship was warmer.

Chinese officials have spent recent weeks pushing the idea that the Trump administration alone had caused the relationship to unravel, and have been nudging Biden with the suggestion that he can unilaterally fix it.

Because Biden had served as vice-president during a friendlier period of US-China relations, and has brought in numerous officials from that time to serve in his cabinet, many voices in China also suggested that Biden would immediately reach out a hand to Beijing after taking office – even as they are also warning Washington to keep its mouth shut about various issues, including TaiwanXinjiang and Hong Kong, that Beijing considers sensitive.

Biden’s speech on Friday was the latest example of just how far the political mood towards China has shifted in the US, especially over the last year.

On other pressing foreign policy issues, Biden has already shown that his administration will move in a radically different direction from his predecessor.

The administration said on Thursday that it had opened the door to restarting diplomatic talks with Iran over the country’s nuclear programme. Biden criticised Russian leader Vladimir Putin by name in his speech on Friday.

And hours before the address, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US had officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement.

Biden made clear on Friday that China policy will be different.

“We have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system,” he said.

Chinese companies should be held to the same transparency standards as US and European companies, he added.

He spoke about “pushing back against those who would monopolise and normalise repression”.

Shortly after the speech, a State Department spokesman criticized a recent Chinese law allowing its coastguard ships to fire on foreign vessels, and said the US stands with allies against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Biden’s speech, delivered soon after his first meeting with the Group of Seven (G7) leaders, reflects the growing view in the US and elsewhere that many of Beijing’s policies under Xi Jinping have become dangerous, analysts have said.

“China has been increasingly assertive on the world stage and in some cases quite aggressive, which has sparked fear in many foreign capitals that they are going to shed some of the constraints and cautious approach that marked their global engagement before,” said Brett Bruen, a former White House head of global engagement and now with a crisis management consultancy.

Beijing’s territorial chest thumping in the South China Sea and its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have unsettled many European and Asian nations, providing fertile ground for a more united front.

Chinese government policies have sparked intense protest around the world, from Europe to India to Myanmar.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at State Department in Washington on February 4. Photo: AP alt=US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at State Department in Washington on February 4. Photo: AP

Allies are now seeing the “full power of their influence,” Bruen added. “When you compare the capacity of Moscow and Beijing to meddle, Beijing is in the Premier League and Moscow in barely in the junior soccer academy.”

Biden also faces bipartisan pressure from Congress to hold a hard line against Xi – one of the few major policy issues in polarised Washington where there is general agreement between the two parties.

Before Biden’s speech, Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the president to take “bold and meaningful action” to hold China’s Communist Party accountable.

“Reprimands and stern talk are no longer enough”, McCaul said in a statement.

At the same time, US allies remain wary of Washington after four years of “America First” policies that often saw them arm twisted into renegotiating trade deals and increasing their military burden sharing.

It remains to be seen if Biden’s appeal on Friday to human rights, democracy and the long-standing US-EU bond – along with his early outreach to allies well before his largely ceremonial February 10 call with Xi – can convince Europe to stay firmly in Washington’s camp in the looming competition with Beijing.

Beijing has not missed a beat in reacting early to Washington’s new playbook, with efforts to undermine any united front with diplomatic sticks and economic carrots. China has lashed out at Australia, enacting punitive trade sanctions, after it joined a European call for a comprehensive investigation into the origin of Covid-19.

Soon after Biden’s election, China also expressed interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. And last month, it reached a Comprehensive Agreement on Investments with the European Union, all part of what some characterise as a divide and conquer strategy.

Hua Chunying, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Friday that China opposes “the practice of ideologizing multilateralism to form values-based allies targeting specific countries” – a response to the G7 meeting on Friday morning.

“Creating a broad united front on China will not happen easily. Beijing will lash out at countries closely coordinating with Washington, as it did against Australia last year,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman and research director at the Eurasia Group, during a rundown of 2021 challenges last month. “Also Xi Jinping has shown he’s a formidable competitor when he pulled a big coup on the EU investment issue.”

In his speech, while Biden spoke about the need to stand up to China and authoritarianism at large, he also warned against retreating into the blocs of a new cold war, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

“Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all,” he said.

But he was clear about which system he believed was ultimately best suited to keep the world peaceful and safe.

“America is back,” he said. “So let’s get together and demonstrate to our great-great-grandchildren, when they read about us, that democracy – democracy – democracy functions and works.”

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.