Loaded with 82 standard containers of commodities, the first freight train of the China Railway Express (Yiwu-Liege) eWTP-Cainiao, after a journey of 17 days starting from Yiwu, east China’s Zhejiang Province, arrives in Belgium’s Liege on October 25, 2019. The new service has brought the total China-Europe train routes originating from Yiwu to 11, connecting the city with 37 countries and regions across Eurasia.
Having promised to “build back better,” the Biden administration now faces two challenges as it sets out to revamp the country’s battered international image in the wake of its predecessor’s blunders. They are: to recalibrate the U.S.’s China policy, and to regain the trust and confidence of its European allies.
As the future trajectories of U.S. relations with China and the EU will have considerable impact on the international landscape, whether or not the Biden administration can steer these relations out of turbulence to greater constructiveness and predictability will attest to the new administration’s competence.
Stabilize and Revamp
Cognizance of Trump’s foreign policy as the shortest route to a dead end should be the starting point of the Biden administration’s formulation of foreign policy, especially that relating to China and EU. Under the pretext of national security concerns, the Trump administration embarked on an all-out containment campaign against China that encompassed politics, security, diplomacy, trade, investment, and technology. This onslaught on all fronts escalated tensions between the two countries, and was detrimental to America’s own security and economic interests. It also impinged on the international system as a whole.
The EU, an important U.S. ally, also suffered political bullying, trade sanctions, and security coercion at the hands of the world’s largest economy. No vestige of the once solid alliance and interdependence could be seen in U.S.-EU relations during the Trump period. To reshape the U.S.’s diplomatic image, the Biden government must expunge the trademark unpredictability and capriciousness of its predecessor’s foreign policy. Clearly aware of this, both on the campaign trail and after the election, Biden’s team intimated its intention to moderate the confrontational tone of the China policy, rebuild the U.S.’s alliance with Europe, and override Trump’s other misguided actions by rejoining the Paris Agreement and the WHO.
As the world labors under the dual pressures of controlling the raging pandemic and revitalizing the economy, it is now time for China, the U.S., and the EU to cooperate and enact their pillar roles. All three can share responsibility for fighting the pandemic and revitalizing the global economy. They can moreover work together to become model stakeholders and pacesetters in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing green economy. The turmoil the world has suffered over the past several years and amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for the international community to acknowledge the importance of cooperation and stability. The power transfer in the United States has given China and the EU good reason to expect an imminent change in the country’s foreign policy. Stabilized China-U.S. and U.S.-EU relations, as well as constructive interaction rather than confrontational conflicts among the three, cannot but be globally beneficent.
Risk of Relapse
Recalibrating the country’s foreign policy is no easy job for the Biden administration. The confrontation mentality lingers on in the United States. The Biden team has not yet clarified its intentions with regard to adjusting foreign policy, and the EU remains uncertain in its stance on China and the U.S. The relations among all three, therefore, risk a relapse into turbulence.
Having won more than 70 million electoral votes, former U.S. President Trump is not alone, as evidenced by the capitol riot his supporters staged. In view of the current huge domestic political pressure, the new government must do its utmost to win bipartisan and public support before making any major foreign policy adjustment. Given the bipartisan consensus on labeling China as a major strategic competitor, it is only to be expected that any adjustment of the U.S.’s China policy will happen in gradual fashion; a dramatic change could trigger vehement opposition from Trump supporters that renders the new government even more vulnerable. The same is true of adjusting U.S. policy toward the EU. Although both have suspended retaliatory tariffs to create a friendlier atmosphere, great divergences still exist on opening the market, trade liberalization, and strategic coordination. Any further steps the new government takes in this regard will inevitably incur censure from “America First” groups.
A connection, moreover, is discernible between the Biden administration’s reflections on the China policy and its aim to revive the alliance with Europe. The new government’s overtone — wherein its reflection on the China policy will eventuate not in any fundamental change in the confrontational mentality, but rather a change in tactics due to the failure of Trump’s “tough on China” strategy — has been noted. The new administration’s reviving of the alliance with Europe could, moreover, be a containment tactic. Once it succeeds in rebuilding the alliance, the U.S. can more effectively contain and confront China under the pretext of rules and standards. Should this be the underlying intention of the Biden administration’s recalibration of its Europe and China policies, the confrontational aspect of China-U.S. relations will be more pronounced, and China-EU relations will flounder in a mire of uncertainty.
In fact, the escalation of China-U.S. competition and consequent deterioration of China-EU relations is not in Europe’s interests. During the Trump presidency, the U.S. sanctions against China’s economy, trade, and technology both harmed China-U.S. ties and impinged on the European market, whose trade and economy has close connections with that of both China and the U.S. According to a survey by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, the impact of the China-U.S. trade war prompted 70 percent of European companies to consider adjustments to the relevant industrial and supply chains. In addition to direct economic losses, America’s unilateral and hegemonic actions, based on its dominant status in the international financial field, inflicted long-term damage on the international system, and were also detrimental to the international environment wherein China and Europe seek peaceful development. Since 2016, Europe has purposefully pursued strategic autonomy in a bid to maintain its own interests amid the competition between the major powers. A united and proactive Europe is conducive to the stability of the international multilateral system, as well as to development of multi-polarization. It moreover conforms to China’s need for a stable and balanced international situation. Consequently, China warmly espouses this pursuit.
However, Europe would gain scant benefits from being a pawn in the United States’ confrontation of China. Containing China will not resolve the strategic conflict, economic competition, and divergence in security matters between Europe and the U.S. The EU’s alignment with the U.S. would also add momentum to America’s “tough on China” drive, thereby obfuscating the U.S.’s true evaluation of current China-U.S. relations and exacerbating the bilateral confrontation. Consequently, getting sucked into the vortex of great power competition would cost Europe its focus and cause harm to, if not loss of its interests.
Outweigh Risks to Make Opportunities
With opportunities and risks laid bare, it is highly possible that opportunities may triumph, as long as neither the U.S. nor EU misreads the situation and takes needless risks.
It’s advisable that all three take the first steps toward cooperation in fields that have reached preliminary consensus, namely, coping with climate change, and maintaining the international multilateral mechanism. Such cooperation will help the three sides gradually to nurture mutual trust and create stability. China, the U.S., and the EU have all proposed their respective carbon neutrality targets, and global efforts to handle climate change and protect the earth need the contributions and guidance of all three. The Biden administration’s move to rejoin the Paris Agreement is a good sign. The 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Britain, and the UN Biodiversity Conference will convene in Kunming, southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The two events will set the stage for China, the U.S, and the EU to cooperate in reducing carbon emissions and ensuring financial input. This cooperation will also advance the global drive toward sustainable development and boost international confidence in its future.
A similar cooperation could also reinforce the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, and the revitalization of the economy through making all three fully cognizant of their intertwined interests and destiny. The U.S. rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) has sent positive signals regarding international cooperation under unilateral frameworks, whereby the three sides can achieve anti-pandemic and economic cooperation via the WHO, G20, and WTO. Their capacity for and experience in coping with public health crises will come to the fore through this cooperation, so giving the international community hope of returning to normal. Meanwhile, their fair and smooth engagement and cooperation on the economic front may also prevent the world economy from falling into recession and help it to get back on the normal track. The principle embodied in the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, moreover, is also applicable to the cooperation agreement between China and the U.S.; and if the U.S. opens negotiations with the EU on international rules, it should also be open to China.
The world has reached a crucial juncture, and relations among China, the U.S., and the EU have entered an unprecedentedly complicated stage. Opportunities for cooperation and risks of confrontation coexist and carry the same weight. If the Biden administration can reach the understanding that “build back better” does not necessarily mean unilaterally seeking America’s interests regardless of those of others, and if the EU can catch the essence of “strategic autonomy” as one that involves greater responsibility, rather than cashing in on China-U.S. relations, all three sides can then restore and expand the ground for cooperation. Common interests will help the U.S. and EU gain a more comprehensive understanding of China, properly position themselves, and rationally draft and implement their related policies.
CUI HONGJIAN is the director of the Department for European Studies of China Institute of International Studies.