A friend who works on Northeast Asian issues is moving to Spain from the United States. He quickly assured me that he wasn’t retiring. In fact, he explained, Valencia is closer to Asia than is New Jersey, his current home. That same logic might be deployed by the Biden administration when it gets down to business: Rebuilding ties with Europe may be one of the best ways to craft an effective China policy.
Contrary to fears in Japan, there is no sign that the Biden administration will be soft on China. Candidate Biden’s statements and writings, as well as those of members of his foreign and security policy teams, start from the proposition that the United States and China are in a multidimensional competition. They acknowledge the need for cooperation on key issues, but they have a keen grasp of priorities. Many of those individuals had jobs in the Obama administration and had to deal with the rapidly expanding gap between China’s talk about cooperation and its revisionist practices.
The new team understands that no country, not even the United States, can check Beijing’s ambitions on its own. Only a coalition has any hope of success and the foundation of any such effort must be U.S. alliances. Biden has made clear his determination to rebuild those alliances in the wake of damage done by his predecessor. Shortly after his election win, he called Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, and “underscored his commitment to deepen and revitalize the U.S.-EU relationship.”
“Democracy” is an organizing principle for the new administration. Foreign Affairs, the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s journal of record, publishes before every presidential election each candidate’s take on foreign policy. In his article, Biden argued that “the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” Victoria Nuland, a Russia expert who has been nominated by Biden to serve as undersecretary of State for political affairs, explained the stakes: “The moment is existential vis-a-vis the challenge from the rising autocrats.”
Biden has promised to hold a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office, one that would include allies from Europe and Asia. (Trump floated a vaguely similar idea when he said that he would host a revamped G7 summit in 2020, but he was planning to include Russia and talks would focus on China. That plan never materialized.) Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has highlighted the new administration’s confidence that it “can develop a common agenda on issues where we share deep concerns on China.”
Asian governments have been lukewarm at best about putting values at the front of their China policy. Europe should be receptive. In March 2019, the European Commission published a strategic outlook that bluntly identified China as a “cooperation partner … a negotiating partner … an economic competitor … and a systemic rival …” At the end of 2020, the Commission followed up with a call for a EU-U.S. partnership to meet the “strategic challenge” posed by China. Among the four focus areas of the “new EU-U.S. agenda for global change” is “working together for a safer, more prosperous, and more democratic world,” adding that “The EU and the U.S. share a fundamental interest in strengthening democracy … .” and declared the EU’s readiness to “play a full part” in Biden’s proposed Summit for Democracy.
Self-preservation is another motivation. As commentator Philip Stephens notes, China may be a strategic competitor of the United States, but the threat it poses to Europe is “existential.” The EU is a “normative” power, one that exercises leadership by example, not brute force. Europe, he warns, “will not survive in a world of Beijing’s design, where cherished rules are replaced by the will of the mighty.” Finally, this policy would be popular. Considerable survey data shows that European publics have largely negative views of China and they support democracy and human rights.
Success isn’t guaranteed. The most formidable obstacle is securing agreement on a harder line against China among 27 European governments. Beijing doesn’t need strong ties with every European country to thwart the EU’s ambitions; it just needs a couple of vocal advocates to prevent a unified position. It has a beachhead with the “17+1 cooperation group” (formally the “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”), a forum at which 17 small Central and Eastern European countries meet annually with China to discuss business and investment relations. Some of its EU members have advocated for a softer line on China in EU debates.
Even Germany, Europe’s largest economy, can be squishy when dealing with China. The country’s business community has pressed for more normalized relations with China, and reportedly had an outsize role in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s determination to conclude an investment agreement with China while Germany held the rotating chair of the EU presidency during the second half of 2020.
The resulting Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), the outline of which was agreed last month after seven years of negotiation, has triggered alarms for failing to open the Chinese market. A deal was reached despite pointed words from Sullivan — in a tweet — that the new administration “would welcome early consultations” on “common concerns about China’s economic practices.”
For some, the deal evidenced Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” or independence from the United States; others say it gave up influence by failing to work with Washington. (Wu Xinbo, the savvy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, offered the Chinese perspective when he said the CAI “will thwart the U.S. plan to join hands with Europe and isolate China from the future of globalization.”) Frictions can be expected even when China isn’t part of the discussion. Forging a united front on privacy and surveillance policy will be difficult given the substantive differences between U.S. and Europe positions on these issues.
Asian governments will instinctively recoil from any policy toward China that is led by trans-Atlantic nations. They will conclude that the priority attached to rebuilding relations with Europe confirms that U.S. talk about the importance of Asia is empty. They will rightly be skeptical of any policy that addresses one of their core concerns but was developed without their input. It smacks of arrogance or imperialism.
Japan could step into that breach. Tokyo has trade agreements with the European Union (the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement) and many of Asia’s trading democracies, courtesy of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership. Tokyo could try to use those deals and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement as cornerstones of a “global democracy trade zone,” as was suggested by the report from last year’s Halifax International Security Forum. That group could develop and coordinate policy on issues ranging from privacy to surveillance to supply chain security. It would engage in the rule making — standard setting — that is one of the most important and neglected features of the global order.
All that happy talk could be the mere flapping of gums when governments are forced to get serious about — and pay a price for — the defense of values. Solidarity quickly evaporates when policies generate real losses, typically in the form of trade or investment opportunities. European governments have proven to have no greater tolerance for such pressures that those closer to China. Still, empty talk from Europeans is more revealing and thus more consequential and more damaging. A rejuvenated trans-Atlantic partnership will be a vital component of efforts to reinforce a global order that is under considerable strain. A move to the continent makes more sense than even my friend imagined.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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