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Foreign Policy

U.S. Rebalance to Europe

Nov 20, 2020
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The 2020 United States presidential election was a hotly contested game. The Democratic candidate, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, has won the election but President Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat and is attempting to overturn the result through ill-fated legal actions. There is virtually no chance that his poorly supported arguments will change anything.

That said, both candidates received more votes than Barack Obama, and their vote tallies are extremely close — within about 3 percent. This reflects the high degree of political and social division and polarization in the United States, and it means that much remains to be done to heal the huge internal antagonism even after the election of a new president.

Amid the many commentaries and discussions, the question of U.S. strategic and diplomatic direction has risen to great importance. The United States is the world’s sole superpower, and the strategic direction of its diplomacy and development of its strategic priorities have significant implications for international relations. On foreign affairs, Biden made it clear on the campaign trail that he would shift the focus of U.S. strategy toward multilateralism, although he didn’t specify what strategic focus or regional priority the U.S. would adopt if he entered the White House. When Obama took office in 2009, he put forward a strategy known as “rebalance to Asia.” I believe a Biden administration will work to rebalance to Europe as a priority region. 

Why does the U.S. need to rebalance to Europe?

After the election, a rather surprising international reaction is that major U.S. allies have recognized Biden, directly or indirectly, as the next president of the United States because of the electoral math, even before the results were officially certified. For example, the heads of state of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan congratulated Biden in the form of tweets and Facebook posts or in interviews with the media. Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom Biden has called a “Trump clone,” quickly signaled his willingness to work with the new administration in an interview with the Associated Press.

The anomaly indicates that U.S. allies, especially European countries, have indeed lost patience with the Trump administration. Recognizing Biden as the president-elect shows their overwhelming desire to end the international chaos caused by the United States by placing external pressure on the country’s domestic politics.

A public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center in the summer of 2020 found that only 10 percent of German respondents and 11 percent of French respondents believed that President Trump had a correct understanding of the international situation — a virtual free-fall from the more than 80 percent when Barack Obama was in office. Even among America’s strong allies in Asia, the decline has been more than 50 percent — 53 percent in Japan and 61 percent in Australia.

President-elect Biden knows well that the biggest victim of U.S. diplomacy over the past four years has not been U.S.-China relations but U.S.-Europe relations. Diplomatic gains that European countries made through years of tireless effort have been abandoned by Trump, including the Paris agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. In addition, talks on a bilateral free trade deal have been frozen for years. The United States coerces its European allies to contribute more to military defense by announcing it would pull its soldiers out of Germany. And the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria has worsened matters locally and led to a massive influx of refugees to Europe.

Biden knows that the top priority is to mend transatlantic relationships before he can shift the focus of U.S. diplomacy toward multilateralism and international cooperation on such issues as Iran’s nuclear program, climate change and international security. So he spoke by phone with the leaders of the UK, France and Germany on Nov. 10 and then told reporters, “We’re going to be back in the game. It’s not America alone.” He also disclosed that the UK prime minister had invited him to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, set for November 2021. 

What does Rebalancing to Europe mean for China?

The rebalance to Asia strategy doesn’t mean that the United States will abandon its diplomacy in Europe. Similarly, a rebalance to Europe won’t necessarily mean the U.S. will stop focusing on Asia. It will simply devote more resources to Europe. Why? Because only by stabilizing relations with Europe can the U.S. achieve a big turnaround in its foreign affairs. Then what does this strategy mean for U.S. ties with Asian countries, especially China?

First, a rebalance to Europe is a positive development for China-U.S. relations because both countries will have more opportunities to expand areas of cooperation and success at the multilateral level. In addition, it has the potential to ease tensions between the two countries. The most anticipated story is that China, the United States and Europe take the lead in the implementation of the Paris agreement, thus providing a strong incentive for other countries to establish their own emission reduction targets. Their enhanced cooperation on the reform and improvement of the World Trade Organization promises to add certainty there. Also, their cooperation on the Iran nuclear issue will produce more experience on how the world’s major countries address hot-button issues in the Middle East. Mutual trust and coordination that the three sides achieve in the process of cooperation will in turn produce a positive impact on China-U.S. relations.

Second, Rebalancing to Europe may put new strategic pressure on China. Europe is most displeased with Trump’s foreign policy stance of “America first,” as well as its unilateral actions. It is also critical of Trump’s policy of suppressing China and anti-free trade principles characterized by protectionism in the form of high tariffs.

At the same time, Europe shares U.S. dissatisfaction with China when it comes to market access and the reform of state-owned enterprises. It also takes a similar position on Hong Kong. All this means that in adopting a Rebalance to Europe strategy, the Biden administration will continue to place enormous pressure on China across the board, as the current administration does, and this pressure will not be slackened in an absolute sense.

For China, it is imperative to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks when expanding cooperation with the United States and adapting to a potential rebalance to Europe strategy. In this sense, the quality of cooperation between China, the United States and Europe will be a critical indicator of international relations once Biden takes office. As the old Chinese saying goes, “A boat sailing against the current must forge ahead or it will be driven back.”

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