US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to work with the EU in forging a more common position on China. Image: Facebook

European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Josep Borrell left little to the imagination in a blog post this week when reflecting on Joe Biden’s victory at the recent US presidential election.

“Many Europeans welcome that the majority of Americans have voted for change,” Borrell noted, going on to write that the bloc welcomes “the chance to work once again with a US President who doesn’t consider us a ‘foe’ or believes the EU has been ‘set up to take advantage of the US.’”

There is clearly optimism among European leaders for renewal in 2021 after transatlantic relations deteriorated to their worst state in decades since Donald Trump entered the White House in early 2017.

Things will certainly change under Biden, including concerning how the US and EU cooperate regarding China. Borrell foresaw “close cooperation on China” after Biden takes office and stressed that formulating “a coherent and robust China stance” on the agenda in both Washington and Brussels.

“Europe already shares a lot of the US’ assessments on China,” explains Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. Both are highly critical of its “unfair trade practices, security risks associated with collaboration with entities affiliated with the Chinese party-state and the challenges posed to democracy and the liberal international order by a rising authoritarian power.”

Poggetti added that any transatlantic coordination on China had been inhibited by the Trump administration, from its focus on unilateralism in world affairs to its often chaotic, gung-ho style of pressuring Beijing to reform and change, nearly the opposite of the bureaucratic and nuanced way the EU prefers to conduct foreign policy.  

With Biden, the EU finds a counterpart far more in its image. Biden and the EU both view China primarily as a competitor rather than an adversary, are skeptical about Trump-style ‘decoupling’, and are focused on “pushing back against malign Chinese behaviors, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the Chinese system itself,” says Noah Barkin, an expert on Europe-China relations at the Rhodium Group, an independent US-based research provider.

This year has been inflective for EU-China relations. In January, the message coming from Brussels was that an EU-China investment deal could be signed before the end of the year, potentially when Xi Jinping arrived in Germany for a major summit planned for September.

French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) welcomes EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2019. Photo: AFP/ludovic Marin

In that scenario, Xi would have been feted by regional leaders while the EU and China showed their support for multilateralism, an event that would have been a thumb in the eye of the Trump administration.  

That didn’t’ happen, however. By April, the chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, Reinhard Buetikofer, spoke for many on the continent when he proclaimed that “China has lost Europe.”

Beijing’s list of apparent offenses is long and wide. Bullet points include responsibility for allowing the coronavirus epidemic to become a worldwide pandemic; its diplomats’ open mockery of how Europeans handled the health crisis; its human rights-violating Uighur detention camps in Xinjiang province; and its imposition of de facto direct rule over semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

Under a Biden presidency, greater US-EU cooperation could “push back against China’s malign behaviors in the security, economic and human rights sphere,” says Barkin.

Moreover, if the Biden camp prioritizes multilateralism, renews its ties with key allies in Europe and Asia, and reaffirms its leadership role in international bodies, it would “embolden those in Europe who want to take a tougher stance on China while remaining open to dialogue with Beijing on issues like public health and climate change,” says Poggetti.

The US and EU also see eye-to-eye on trade issues with China.

Beijing still reckons the prospective EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment can be agreed before the end of the year, even though the Europeans have made it publicly known they are now more hesitant about rushing into a potentially bad deal.

This urgency has now somewhat eased at the EU as some European leaders sensed that Beijing may have been a better choice of partner if Trump had won a second term in office.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at the White House on March 17, 2017. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at the White House on March 17, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Due to EU fears that the Trump administration may have sought to extract concessions from Beijing only for the US in his trade and tech wars, the EU has sought to tackle its economic issues with Beijing independently.

However, the reforms Brussels wants from Beijing, namely equal access for its firms in the Chinese market and limits on subsidies given to Chinese state-run companies, are exactly the same as those Washington is pursuing as part of a “phase two” US-China trade deal.

In September, the European Parliament noted that US-China talks “obviously has had an impact” on the EU’s negotiations with Beijing. With Biden in the White House, a reformed transatlantic relationship could see a joint US-EU effort in forcing Beijing to make reforms.

It’s almost certain that the Biden camp will want closer cooperation with the EU on Chinese economic matters. Whether that extends to issues like China’s human rights violations and its security threat in the South China Sea and over Taiwan is less clear.

Much depends, of course, on how Biden crafts his China policy, a source of much debate and split opinions among pundits in the media and on social media.

Stiff opposition in Congress may also force Biden to put foreign policy on a back burner during his first year for the sake of his domestic agenda.

Wang Yiwei, director of the Center for European Union Studies at the Renmin University of China, reckons Biden will be a “very weak president” and struggle to repair the damage Trump has done to America’s international reputation and alliances.

Biden may seek to “contain China” through the international community and alongside its allies, Wang added, but four years of Trump means the Chinese people are not “naive about liberalism-driven globalization” and they realize they need to build a “Chinese-style globalization.”

An article in China’s Communist Party-run nationalistic tabloid Global Times claimed that European countries will not “blindly cater to the US” when Biden is inaugurated in January because they have no interest in “losing their independence.”

Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Joe Biden at a luncheon in a file photo. Image: Getty Images via AFP

There are also suggestions that a more nuanced and diplomatic approach by Biden could cause Brussels to tone down its increasingly tough rhetoric on China, returning instead to its more traditional muted stance on Beijing’s poor human rights record and more recent geopolitical expansionism so as to maintain open channels on trade and environment issues.

“That would be a mistake,” the Rhodium Group’s Barkin opined. “To avoid it, it will be incumbent on a Biden administration to keep up the pressure on allies when it comes to China. A more nuanced approach can deliver better results with China if done right. But it can also backfire if the messaging is not crystal clear.”

To be sure, Biden’s policy will not be a blank slate when he is inaugurated in January. Under Trump, Washington intensely lobbied EU and other states not to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to help develop their 5G networks over security fears.

Although Biden’s administration is unlikely to be as gung-ho on the issue, the core of Trump’s ever-evolving tech war with China, several EU member states have already imposed different types of bans on Huawei in their 5G rollouts.

Significantly, European public sentiment towards China has shifted remarkably in recent years. When Trump entered the White House in 2017, only 53% of Germans and 52% of the French held unfavorable views of China. But those figures rose this summer to 71% and 70% respectively, according to Pew Research Center surveys.  

While not necessarily following public opinion but at the same time reacting to a greater realization of the problems caused by a rising China, certain European leaders have hardened their rhetoric while others have staked their claim as anti-Beijing “hawks”, a rare stance for European politicians until very recently.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell holds a press conference in Brussels, Belgium on December 09, 2019. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via AFP

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ordinarily one of Europe’s most reserved and measured leaders, warned in October that “if there is no market access from the Chinese side for certain areas, this will of course also be reflected in the fact that market access to the European market will be narrower.” 

How quickly the EU and US can reach an agreement under Biden on a more united stance on China waits to be seen. A new EU-US dialogue on China was announced last month. While the first session is scheduled to be held within a few weeks, the Trump administration may not pay it much heed.

The outgoing US president is now absorbed with his belief that he can contest and overturn the US election result, but Borrell may have signaled his view when he wrote this week that he hopes Brussels and Washington will approach the new EU-US dialogue “with renewed energy…under the next [US] administration.”