As President-elect Joe Biden is busy with cherry-picking candidates for his team, it becomes clear that the new administration will be more cooperative on some issues while it will also retain Donald Trump’s antagonistic China policy on the others. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for National Security Advisor, recently stressed that the US remains united with its allies “against China’s assault” while also raising concerns over the Hong Kong issue. Since the Biden-led administration has widely publicized human rights as its top priority and promised to get tougher on China, the topic may become an insurmountable stumbling block on the track to improving tense and spoiled US-China relations.
Although Sullivan’s phrasing falls within the new administration’s logic of reinvigorating alliances with like-minded democracies to counter China, it may still disavow some of the expert forecasts that the new US leader is more preferable for China than his predecessor. It is reinforced by Biden’s recent selection of Lloyd Austin as incoming Defense Secretary, a person who is widely believed to be pushing the promotion of Indo-Pacific strategy crafted under Trump as a crucial US national security pillar.
China bears in mind the US’ long-term plans to increase its navy to 350+ ships by 2030 with some bald calculations of an even larger number of 500+ ships. Beijing came up with a commensurate response to size up its own fleet by 2030 with four aircraft carrier battle groups.
Recognizing all the challenges, Beijing is trying to navigate its way through a diplomatic storm by securing its partnership relations with other major world powers. The EU is one of the critical targets on Chinese radar to make sure the bloc remains neutral in the China-US feud or at least abstain from blindly mimicking Washington’s anti-China rhetoric.
In November, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged Brussels to “chart its own course” when dealing with China. For generally cautious and vague Chinese diplomatic language, such a straightforward demand looks unusual and may speak for Beijing’s very strong desire to articulate its positive sentiments towards the EU unambiguously.
Pushing on the same agenda, China’s ambassador to Germany also attempted to ensure the EU business and political elite that the bloc remains a key partner for China and can win from a new “dual circulation” concept touted by Beijing. As the SCMP notes, it is done amid “signs of rapprochement between the EU and US” following the US Presidential elections.
In his December speech, Wang Yi mentioned a greater strategic trust between China and the EU based on “multilateralism, free trade, and fight against climate change,” highlighting Beijing’s attempts to find areas for consensus by avoiding disputable issues. President Xi in early December also stressed that he hopes Europe “can implement positive China policies”.
The EU is not always supportive of Washington’s energetic style for active anti-China containment. It did not rush to ban Chinese companies from developing 5G technology within the bloc and still refuses to quickly ban Chinese officials over Hong Kong disputes in a clear demonstration of a more balanced approach to China.
Moreover, the EU and the US are at odds over issues that they usually name among top concerns when dealing with Beijing. This summer the top European court ruled that EU netizens are deprived of sufficient digital protection when the data is passed to the US.
There are some minor signs of a thaw in China-EU relations. To name a few, French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks in a phone call with Xi Jinping about strengthening cooperation with China on climate change and public health as well as the revitalization of European companies’ multimillion investment activities in quickly rebooting China’s post-Covid economy. However, climate change, multilateralism, public health, while important components of better coordination – are still deprived of strategic significance and serve for both sides more as façade decoration in a sense of “better that than nothing.”
On the contrary, the US is more committed to attracting the EU deeper into its orbit, rebuilding the damage caused to bilateral relations by the turbulent years of Trump’s rule. More specifically, Biden’s incoming administration, backed by bipartisan anti-China consensus, prioritizes the expansion of strategic cooperation with the EU. US senators vow to work with European allies to promote private sector investments in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure maritime security in the South China Sea. This formula directly challenges China’s national interests as it targets an area Beijing claims as sovereign territory. However, for now, it is not quite clear yet to what extent Joe Biden would swing the pendulum from his predecessor’s policy towards Beijing since his team has come up with a “smarter approach” of combining cooperation on some issues with competition on the others, reducing reciprocal blaming.
European policymakers, close to the US with its idea of transatlantic unity – tried and tested during the Cold War with the USSR – tend to listen to Washington’s tune in “big” strategic matters. Thus, EU high representatives call for EU-US cooperation to “stand up to coercive, ‘wolf-warrior’ Chinese diplomacy” and intimidation as well as coordination on the South China Sea. Brexit Britain, although leaving the EU, is still representative of its basic foreign policy principles, and is echoing Donald Trump’s May proposal to extend the G7 by inviting India, South Korea, and Australia in order to challenge China. Such an idea also dovetails with Biden’s proposal to arrange a global summit of democracies.
In fact, there is not much that China can offer to win the EU over from the US, except to deliver on most-wanted EU wishes – i.e., reciprocal market openness as well as the conclusion of the long-negotiated investment deals, which have caused much resentment in EU capitals for the slow progress attributed to Beijing’s unwillingness to compromise.
Nevertheless, it does not seem realistic that a trade and investment deal would enable China to woo Brussels, since their bilateral relationship would remain low in the strategic dimension. No wonder that a popular consensus among the expert community now is that the true winner is China. Beijing guarantees its access to European markets, especially in a vital - for its economic development - hi-tech industry that has been hit hard by U.S. economic restrictions. The conclusion of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) signals Washington that the EU is not willing to play to its tune in isolating Beijing economically and is going to navigate its own course managing relations with China. It is underpinned by the fact that despite the upcoming US administration’s plea for Brussels to come to “early consultations” over mutual concerns regarding the CAI, it fell on the deaf ears of EU politicians.
The continuing uncertainty between the EU and China might be behind Beijing’s rationale in its 2021 foreign policy agenda to place more emphasis on reinforcing partnership with its more reliable and trusted partner – Russia. Beijing enjoys a strategic partnership with Moscow, close in complexity and comprehensiveness to the alliance. The continuing discomfort in relations with the EU may further strengthen Russian-Chinese rapprochement.
Recent riots involving the American Capitol Building with an outraged mob of Trump supporters assaulting and invading it have resonated tremendously worldwide. Global reaction has once again unveiled ideological differences typical of the relations between the major powers. European feedback corresponded more to US media coverage, rife with accusations of the protestors’ attack on democracy. China and Russia painted their reactions in a more ideological manner, with the former accusing the US of a double-standard approach when referring to Trump supporters as “rioters” while calling malcontent Hong Kongers “activists.” Russia also reprimanded the American electoral system for being archaic and politicized.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was a unique year in the recent history of Russian-Chinese relations. There was not a single personal meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, but Moscow and Beijing maintained close contacts on all fronts. During a recent videoconference Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Chinese colleague Wei Fenghe , signed a protocol to prolong the 2009 agreement on reciprocally notifying each other ballistic missile and space rocket launches for a new ten-year period. According to Russia’s MFA, this is a sign of “the trusting nature of Russian-Chinese relations.”
Russia serves as a traditional, valued partner for China in a stormy geopolitical environment, when it becomes a rather daunting task to win new partners since old instruments (like the Belt and Road initiative) tend to misfire. Meanwhile, although the partnership between Moscow and Beijing may become deeper in the context of increasingly complicated relations with the West, the sides are unlikely to seek a foothold in the creation of a formal military alliance. Common approaches to global issues may be combined with divergences on some regional issues, with both sides trying to maintain strategic autonomy.