Biden’s China Challenge Starts in Paris and Berlin
This article is part of the U.S. Speaker Series project, led by GMF Paris office in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
The desire to strengthen transatlantic relations has shaped the foreign policy discourse on both sides of the Atlantic over the last weeks, especially on the “three Cs”—climate, the coronavirus pandemic, and China. Yet, before thinking about the implementation of sophisticated policy proposals for transatlantic cooperation on China, the Biden administration will have to deal with a much more fundamental challenge: the absence of a coherent EU strategy on China, and cooperation between France and Germany that pursues national goals to the detriment of developing one. While each alone might already complicate transatlantic cooperation on China, the combination of two constitutes a serious foreign policy litmus test for the new occupant the White House.
The lack of a clear EU strategy on China complicates anticipating EU action, making significant efforts of transatlantic policy coordination more necessary. However, at the same time, Germany and France have rediscovered the power of the French-German double act for pursuing their respective national interests on China through the EU, as seen with the EU’s recent Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China. Consequently, Biden will need to convince Paris and Berlin to abandon short-term gains in favor of long-term strategic action—and to do so successfully, he will need a good offer.
“Pragmatism”: Another Word for Franco-German “Opportunism”?
The EU has published several papers and communications on China, but a comprehensive China strategy has yet to see the light of day. The likes of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation or the 2016 EU Strategy on China Council Conclusion are characterized by cautious and general provisions. It took until 2019 for the European Commission to label China simultaneously a cooperation and negotiation partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival.
The undeniable strength of this approach is that it leaves space for differentiation, which is needed in the multifaceted relationship between the EU and China, and in light of the global challenges that can only be tackled when Beijing supports relevant efforts. Yet, this strength equally constitutes a major flaw of the EU’s approach to China since the EU falls short of a clear definition of which relationship should be pursued in which realm of international affairs. This strategic confusion can barely be mitigated by national strategies, as neither France nor Germany have formulated a comprehensive strategy on China that could serve as a reference point. However, the launch of national guidelines on the Indo-Pacific by France, Germany, and the Netherlands in the last years underlines European awareness of the geopolitical importance of the region and constitutes an important starting point for bridging strategic gaps.
As long as these gaps persist, the EU’s China policy can and will flexibly react to political realities—some call this pragmatism, others opportunism. The conclusion of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment on December 30, two days before the end of the German EU Council presidency, has demonstrated that ‘opportunism’ might be the more suitable term. Albeit aware of the request of the incoming Biden administration for previous consultations on the agreement, the German presidency, upon considerable lobbying efforts from the German business community and supported by France, pushed for the conclusion of the agreement. Improving market access mainly in the automotive, communication, private health, and financial sectors, the agreement primarily benefits the economic objectives of Germany and France, whereas the gains for smaller European countries—which Berlin and Paris often accuse of undermining a joint EU approach through their exclusive cooperation with China through the 17+1 format—might be more limited.
In this case, the Franco-German couple worked successfully through the EU to secure mutual benefits, as both countries can frame the agreement as a national success in their domestic debates. Germany can present itself as the successful broker of an agreement its business community has been longing for for seven years, and France can bolster itself with an act of European strategic autonomy. While bottles of champagne will already have been opened in Paris, Berlin, and Beijing, Washington has started preparing the hangover cure for transatlantic cooperation on China in 2021.
The Quest for Strategic Autonomy and Transatlantic Realignment
These misunderstandings of Europe as a successful broker and a strategically autonomous actor vis-à-vis China render transatlantic cooperation particularly challenging for Biden. In terms of economic benefits, the investment agreement is far from being as comprehensive as its name suggests given that market access is limited to specific sectors and reciprocity is unachieved. However, its political implications and the signal it sends to Beijing is that all it takes to win over the EU is an attractive economic offer to Germany and France.
The EU may have been a broker and an autonomous actor in this case, but it was neither successful nor strategic. This emphasizes once more the undeniable need for true European strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China: a comprehensive strategy with clearly defined priorities and areas for cooperation, and a clear communication of these and potential opportunities for cooperation with the Biden administration. In this context, it is essential to understand that the Biden administration is not an obstacle, but a catalyst for such European strategy-making, especially on China.
To mitigate the consequences of the current strategic opportunism among European countries and to manage expectations of transatlantic relations, a comprehensive European China strategy would be more than welcome in Washington. However, until one is on the table, Biden’s China challenge starts in France and Germany.
Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights in Xinjiang, Chinese influence in multilateral organizations, and the conflict in the South Chinese Sea—all these issues will require the U.S. president’s attention. During an event of the U.S. Speaker Series in 2020 in Paris on U.S.-China policy, experts underlined the strong bipartisan consensus on China in the United States. However, this favorable domestic political climate cannot obscure the fact each of the issues taken alone is already a considerable challenge. Due to their broader regional implications, these issues are also of increasing interest to foreign policymakers in France and Germany, who have developed an increasing interest in security in the Indo-Pacific in recent years. Hence the necessity for Biden to add policy coordination with Paris and Berlin to the top of his Asia to-do list. The achievement of U.S. objectives with regard to China can only benefit from transatlantic cooperation, on China directly and on the regional level.
Ambitious proposals for a big transatlantic “win” on China are already on the table, such as the creation of a vice-presidential-level council on China, as suggested by GMF’s Transatlantic Task Force, or a transatlantic agenda on reforming the World Trade Organization. Such proposals are promising and should not be forgotten in the drawers of policymakers and think tankers—a much better place for them is Biden’s briefing folder for trilateral talks with Paris and Berlin, and Washington should actively push for such talks to be organized in the next months.
Without imposing U.S. leadership with the expectation that European partners will automatically follow, Biden should offer transatlantic cooperation in the form of a positive joint agenda on China. This could include an initiative for promoting global leadership on climate change with Beijing, or an ambitious infrastructure and development aid package for South-East Asian states. In this regard, it is critical for the United States to make clear that transatlantic cooperation on China is not just a tool in great-power competition, but a shared interest. A U.S. offer for a positive transatlantic agenda on China will require European countries to articulate their interests and priorities vis-à-vis the United States, which may be the best opportunity to develop European strategic autonomy they will get when it comes to dealing with both countries.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.