The incoming Biden administration hopes to put together an international coalition of liberal democracies to pressure China on its human rights record and trade practices. Washington’s relationship with Europe, and its transatlantic agenda, is key to Biden’s foreign policy plans, since European countries have different trade relationships with Beijing. Attempting to unite countries with competing interests under a single ideological framework to transform Beijing’s behavior will be tough, and the approach will significantly differ from President Trump’s techniques.
The Trump administration deconstructed Europe's previous role as a supplementary partner to Washington's trans-Atlantic goals, and demanded that Europe balance trade relationships with the U.S., and contribute more to the costs of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). President Trump's instruments for swaying European behavior included tariffs, sanctions, and harsh rhetoric on the world stage, which routinely shocked traditional U.S. allies. Trump's bombastic words only encouraged Europe's drift towards a more independent and sovereign foreign policy.
Previously, European leaders enjoyed geopolitical consistency by supporting American military interventions, imposing sanctions on Russia, or working together to combat climate change. However, China's emergence as a critical European export destination, and a source for crucial financing of infrastructure projects with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), created imbalances between varying national interests inside of the European Union. During the same period, interests between the E.U. and the United States also diverged. The coronavirus pandemic further polarized these interests since President Trump harshly attacked and demonized China as the source of the virus, all the while European countries accepted significant medical aid from China.
The 'America first' ideology created additional rumblings of 'Europe first' within various E.U. capitals. To make matters more complicated, national governments began to prioritize their interests over those of the E.U. Not only did this encourage pre-existing populist movements in France, Hungary, Poland, and Italy, it also promoted European sovereignty on issues such as trade, the green transition, and telecommunications infrastructure. Before Trump, Europe aligned with the U.S. on many of these challenges, but European pragmaticism grew after his economic nationalism widened the transatlantic divide. Even before COVID-19, Europe had significant internal disagreements on fiscal spending, public debt, and solvency issues, which also contributed to varying national interests. European banks, corporations, and households are still held together with stimulus from Brussels and Frankfort and individual national governments. The European Mediterranean, notably Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, still struggle with burdensome public debt levels, high unemployment, and sluggish growth. These countries could hesitate to join an initiative orchestrated by the Biden administration without substantial incentives because it might go against their economic interests, which are already devastated by a pandemic and a nearly decade long battle with high debt and low economic growth. Despite all of these issues, President Biden hopes to revive transatlanticism and recruit a league of democracies which will confront Beijing on its human rights record.
Arguments for Renewed Transatlanticism
Foreign policy circles in both Washington and Brussels acknowledge that China is an economic, technological, and strategic competitor because of its rapidly developing military, large carbon footprint, unfair business and trade practices, and mixed human rights record. Although Trump accelerated an unpredictable and sloppy decoupling between Beijing and Washington, further uncertainty could hurt western economies since China remains America's third-largest trading partner and Europe's second.
However, the coronavirus revealed a severe western dependence on global supply chains tied to Beijing, which compromised access to advanced technologies and medical supplies. The Trump administration and Brussels spent several years re-evaluating Beijing's trading practices and examining market exposure and the treatment of western businesses in China. They concluded that there is a lack of transparency, predictability, and fairness in government regulations on Beijing's end, and that western firms suffered as a result. These imbalances led to the rapid growth of Chinese mergers and acquisitions in Europe and European intellectual property vulnerability.
Transatlanticists then argued that the BRI began to at least indirectly undermine European unity because countries in need of foreign direct investment and infrastructure improvements began cooperating with Beijing on strategic needs. They ignore the fact that European and U.S. investment did not fill these investment gaps in places like Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe. China's critics labeled the BRI loans as predatory and tied to political conditionalities that often resulted in bankruptcy.
When European countries like Italy began signing memorandums of understanding with Beijing, voices in Washington and Brussels expressed concern about the one million detained Uighurs in Xinjiang, and the tightened social and political controls in Hong Kong, which violates Beijing's 1997 promise of preserving "One Country, Two Systems" until 2047.
The campaign to spread awareness about these issues, combined with backlash over the coronavirus pandemic, shifted public opinion in the U.S. and Europe where a majority of citizens hold an unfavorable view of China. Two-thirds or more of the public in France, Germany, and the United States have a negative idea of China's rising influence. Europeans are more concerned about human rights while Americans are most worried about economic competition. In sum, statements about European values worked to shift public opinion in Europe, while Trump’s presidency centered on fair and free trade won over most Americans.
Europe's positions will be reactive. If Biden keeps Trump's economic policies in place, Europe will continue developing a case-by-case relationship with Beijing. If Biden improves the US-China relationship and relaxes tariffs, the European private sector will rejoice to know that they can continue increasing business ties with no real political consequences. Corporate leaders and respondents in Europe still view China as a top export market for European goods. It will be increasingly hard for Biden to organize a significant pro-US bloc among European allies. If this is somewhat difficult in Germany, imagine how hard it might be in Hungary or Italy. If Biden goes about recruiting states to join diplomatic efforts, Europe will likely split along a France-Germany divide. Countries that rely on BRI financing for infrastructure projects or export goods to China will hesitate. In contrast, countries that do not rely on Chinese credit or export destinations will join Washington's diplomatic coalition.