Mar 30, 2021

The EU-US-China Triangle

In the third issue of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY we're focusing on the power relationships between the European Union, the United States, and China and the world they will be shaping.

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The opening gambits in the emerging EU-US-China power triangle have been made.

In a telephone call on February 10 to Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Joe Biden not only wished the Chinese people good luck in the Year of the Ox. According to the White House readout, “President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan. … President Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies.”

In response, President Xi pushed two messages. “The Taiwan question and issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, etc. are China's internal affairs and concern China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the US side should respect China's core interests and act prudently, Xi stressed,” reported the state-run Xinhua news agency. But he also made the case for US-China cooperation, which, Xi said, had delivered “enormous benefits for the American and Chinese people” over the past 50 years. “‘You have said that America can be defined in one word: Possibilities. We hope the possibilities will now point toward an improvement of China-US relations,’ Xi said to Biden.”

For now, they do not.

In a first face-to-face meeting between the foreign policy principles of both sides in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 19, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan openly clashed with CCP Politburo member Yang Jiechi (waving his finger at Blinken at one point) and Foreign Minister Wang Yi when exchanging statements in public. The Chinese Foreign Ministry later spoke of “grandstanding” and “provocations.” (Behind closed doors, the talks reportedly were more productive.)

After Anchorage, Blinken’s next stop was Brussels. Earlier he had visited Asian allies and organized a “Quad” meeting of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States at the presidential level. He then reassured European allies in a pitch-perfect speech at NATO’s HQ on March 24, stressing “The United States won't force our allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China.” He then agreed with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, to start the EU-US Dialogue on China in earnest, with meetings at the senior official and expert levels “on topics such as reciprocity, economic issues, resilience, human rights, security, multilateralism, and areas for constructive engagement with China such as climate change.”

The Chinese, meanwhile, did their own bit of triangulation, helping along this fledgling transatlantic dialogue. In response to essentially symbolic sanctions against four Chinese officials over human right violations in Xinjiang province, the Chinese Foreign Ministry hit back outlandishly, sanctioning inter alia four MEPs and, if taken literally, all the 27 EU member states’ ambassadors in Brussels–two days before Blinken’s Brussels visit.

“The kaleidoscope [of the EU-US-China power relations] has shifted abruptly,” Adam Tooze writes in our Spring 2021 Issue, which focuses on the power triangle that is likely to determine the future course of world politics.

Like his two predecessors, President Biden is clearly banking on a classic grand strategy of great power competition with the aim of securing US supremacy, Tooze writes. The EU’s approach so far has been “multi-track”—and wisely so. But three months into the Biden administration, the EU is moving quite strongly in the US direction and toward partial alignment with the US. Should the West fully align, it would be, in Tooze’s words, “momentous”—and dangerous.

However, there are good reasons for the transatlantic partners to work together in some fields. As Torrey Taussig argues, “a robust transatlantic agenda on China is required not in spite of, but because of the complex interdependencies that exist between the West and Beijing.” Kerry Brown, meanwhile, points out that “the EU and the US are coming to the realization that China poses questions that neither can answer on their own.” Noah Barkin reports that the days of Germany’s uncritical “go-it-alone” approach to China seem to be numbered. The Greens, which in all likelihood will be part of any post-Angela Merkel government, will see to that.

And with Germany’s chancellor’s time in office running out, Robin Niblett and Thierry de Montbrial reflect on the country’s future international course—in our Toward a New German Foreign Policy series, which we showcase in this issue. Make sure you continue to follow the international debate on our website!

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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