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Foreign Policy

Can Biden Counter China?

Mar 10, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

U.S. President Joe Biden made a virtual appearance at the G7 Summit and subsequently at the Munich Security Conference, with a resounding cry to Western allies: America is back.

The new American administration sent three signals at the meetings:

First, it will pivot away from Trumpism, return to multilateralism and work with allies and partners to address transnational challenges, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nuclear proliferation, climate change and cybersecurity.

Second, it will emphasize the importance of the transatlantic relationship to make up for the serious damage caused by the Trump shock wave.

Third, it intends to reshape the coalition of Western democracies to counter rivals such as China and Russia.

The G7 communique stressed collective approaches to address non-market-oriented policies and practices.   Specifically, as Europe’s long-awaited most-Atlanticist U.S. president, Biden is likely to improve U.S.-EU relations on three fronts.

He could first emphasize democratic values, restore America’s international standing and go back to the basis of an alliance based on common values. Biden once identified the goal of U.S. diplomacy as reclaiming the country’s credibility. Accordingly, he proposed a global summit for democracy. In the new situation, the U.S. and Europe may also work together to promote Western democratic values on new agenda items, and in new domains. This would highlight unity in the West, strengthen cooperation and build alliances by jointly promoting an international democratic order in the digital field, for example.

Second, Biden will consolidate practical transatlantic ties and repair the rifts caused by the Trump shock wave. In the security field, for example, the Biden administration will increase its attention on and commitment to NATO.

The U.S. and Russia have agreed to extend the New START treaty for five years, which is a positive sign for improvement of relations. The U.S. can build on the agreement and push for negotiations on new arms control measures with Russia, which will benefit not only U.S.-Russia strategic stability and international arms control but also the security and stability of Europe.

Third, Biden will support multilateralism for more cooperation with Europe. The two sides may collaborate more on the Iranian nuclear issue and climate change. Increased cooperation on rules will highlighted in their relations.

It is a common understanding of the political and strategic circles on both sides of the Atlantic that the U.S. and Europe must reinvigorate multilateralism and the international order and redouble their efforts to shape rules in important areas, especially by promoting international standards and rules in the fields of technology and trade.

In addition to these interactions, the Biden administration still wants to portray China as the biggest external influencer in the transatlantic agenda, which will help consolidate the U.S. position in major power competition and revive solidarity within the alliance. However, the transatlantic relationship will continue to be counterbalanced by Trump’s legacy in Europe. The mistrust of the U.S., the structural contradictions in the U.S.-EU alliance and the different perceptions of China will hardly disappear.

For one thing, the debate over policies toward the U.S. in the European strategic community, sparked in the Trump era, is not over. The Trump shock wave prompted a new round of debate in relatively weak Europe about the future of U.S.-European relations, which has become the main ideological basis to question the transatlantic relationship and will continue to serve as the basis in the Biden era.

There have been mainly two debate topics. The first is about the Trump phenomenon and how the transatlantic relationship will be affected when a new president comes to office in the U.S.. Some European scholars are concerned that, after Biden, politicians like Donald Trump will rise again and the transatlantic relationship will again shudder. Others argue that the new fault line in EU-U.S. relations under Trump was neither geographical nor ideological but rather based on long-standing structural differences in globalization and the liberal international order. 

The other main topic is whether Europe should prepare for post-Atlanticism. The discussion has been particularly heated in Germany. Atlanticists believe that the idea of moving away from the U.S. will bring no good to Europe, which still relies on the America for its security. The two sides remain irreplaceable partners. For the post-Atlanticists, however, the U.S. has neither the ability nor the will to act as Europe’s protector and stabilizer. Its “strategic withdrawal” from Europe has been underway since the Obama years, and the U.S. will require Europe to take up a greater responsibility anyway, even under Biden.

For another thing, the alliance dilemma, exacerbated by Trump’s policies toward Europe, will continue in the Biden era.

On one hand, the U.S. faces a difficult choice between maintaining hegemony and sustaining its alliances. The reality of a relative decline forces it to use resources reasonably. To defend its hegemony, the U.S. needs to throw off unnecessary economic burdens and rely on the alliance system’s help in major power competition.

But there is an inherent contradiction between the two. An overemphasis on the sharing of economic costs by European allies will only encourage their sense of strategic autonomy and drive them away from assisting the U.S. in major power competition. Continued inputs to European allies will make it impossible for the U.S. to “travel light,” which is also detrimental to its strategic goal to sustain a hegemonic position. The U.S. is thus caught in a cost dilemma with its allies.

On the other hand, Europe faces the dilemma of strategic autonomy versus strategic dependence. Pressure from the Trump administration has spurred Europe’s awakening to strategic autonomy, but it faces an unsustainable security cost if it were to get away from the U.S. in the short term. The Biden administration may mitigate to a certain extent the difficult situation for Europe, but it cannot fundamentally change that.

At present, the trend of pivoting American global strategic resources to the Indo-Pacific is increasingly apparent. The creation of a new Indo-Pacific coordinator position on the National Security Council and the arrangement of two senior directors and a China directo have are clear signals that the Biden administration has not only taken over the “Indo-Pacific” expression but will also push ahead with Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. As such, the pace of strategic withdrawal from Europe will only gain speed, and Europe will continue to face a dilemma.

China’s perceived position as a rival in major power competition will continue to divide the U.S. and Europe rather than uniting them. In spite of Biden’s emphasis on a more sophisticated approach to competition with China, the U.S. seems to have adopted the previous administration’s view of China as a strategic competitor and has a sustained perception gap with Europe. The U.S. and Europe differ visibly on competition with China. The hegemonic former is engaged in systemic competition or even confrontation, while the more development-oriented Europe competes with China for influence within the same system. Therefore, the major power competition exercised by the U.S. is essentially at odds with the economic cooperation pursued by Europe.

The U.S. has its own agenda for Europe’s goodwill and tries to pull the latter into the trap of major power competition in the hope that Europe will support America’s global and regional strategy, which objectively increases the cost of Europe’s foreign economic cooperation. Europe is reluctant to fully engage in the major power competition, so eagerly called for by the U.S., as Europe’s rival in such a competition happens to be its economic partner.

Europe thus faces the economic implications of excessive transatlantic bundling. The carrots and sticks used by the U.S. have not been sufficient for Germany to eliminate Huawei from that country. This shows America’s limitations in mobilizing its allies to contain China. Self-interest remains relevant in European decision-making, while the U.S. may value its geopolitical interests more.

The transatlantic atmosphere will obviously be more relaxed during Biden’s term. However, if the U.S. continues to press for European collaboration to counter China by presenting China as an external threat and using it to unite Europe, and if it continues to ignore its own problems, the U.S. will create bigger troubles for the alliance in the future, even as the transatlantic rift is swept under the rug in the short term.

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