When it comes to timing, China appears to have arrived late to the party as it moves to realign relations with the European Union.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi made another political pitch last week when he called on the EU “to stand on its own as a pole of the world.”
His comments came after conversations with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Josep Borrell, the head of foreign affairs for the EU.
“China believes that the EU’s strategic autonomy should be embodied in adhering to multilateralism and … to the principle of …independently deciding foreign policy,” Wang told Borrell in a telephone tête-à-tête.
He then made similar overtures to Le Drian. “China has always upheld the world’s multi-polarization and supported the EU to stand on its own as a pole of the world,” Wang said, referring to the unraveling of Europe’s historic ties with the United States.
But why come out with those comments now?
Nearly four years of President Donald Trump’s abrasive “America First” policy has threatened the transatlantic relationship. A row about NATO spending and trade has left Europe questioning US motives amid calls for a new approach in international affairs.
French President Emmanuel Macron has even suggested strategic autonomy when it comes to the digital economy, defense and environmental issues.
Yet getting Germany and other members of the 27-nation bloc to agree to such a seismic shift will be extremely difficult. Then, of course, there is the Biden factor.
So will the new president-elect breathe new life into the transatlantic partnership?
Joe Biden has made it clear he wants to stabilize and then beef up the alliance. While Trump was predictable for being unpredictable, the incoming president will build coalitions to deal with the diplomatic and political excesses of the Chinese government.
At the same time, he will work with President Xi Jinping on climate change and probably North Korea.
But he will not return to the “business as usual” philosophy of the Barack Obama administration after making it clear he will “get tough” with the world’s second-largest economy.
“China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future,” Biden wrote in a commentary for Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit think tank.
“The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change and global health security,” he said.
How will this play in the EU?
As soon as it became clear that Biden was heading to the White House, he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron. At the top of his agenda was a policy of international consensus with the EU about human rights inside China, the eroding of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and Beijing’s predatory trade tactics.
Aggressive Chinese naval activity in the South and East China Seas was another growing concern.
Again, this mirrors the ethical approach pursued by Brussels when dealing with China’s ruling Communist Party.
“Europe is a player, not a playing field,” EU Council President Charles Michel told a media briefing after the EU-China summit in September.
His remarks illustrated the snail-like pace of Beijing’s pledges to open up the economy.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went even further. “The European market is open, and European companies must have fair and equal access to the Chinese market in return,” she said.
Where does this leave China and Xi’s administration?
The tone had already been set by Le Drian and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an opinion piece for the Washington Post 10 days ago.
“With Biden, greater transatlantic unity will be possible with regard to autocrats and countries that seek to enhance their power by undermining [the] international or regional order. But a principled approach does not exclude dialogue and cooperation,” they wrote.
“Under a Biden administration, the compass needle of US foreign policy will continue to gravitate toward China, which we see as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival at the same time,” Le Drian and Mass said.
Surely, that means the SS EU has already sailed with Chinese politicians waving it off at the quayside?
Earlier this week, Xi finally acknowledged Biden’s election victory in a congratulatory message reported by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
“I hope to see both sides uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, and focus on cooperation while managing and controlling disputes,” he said.
Yet his comments are unlikely to dramatically improve relations between the world’s two largest economies. Instead, they will probably push the US closer to the EU as the transatlantic partnership is reborn with a new purpose for the next decade.
“Chinese leaders [have] utterly failed to capitalize on Washington’s alienation of its traditional allies under President Trump. It’s a missed opportunity that probably won’t come again,” Trivium China, the research group, said in a note.