The US and Europe have agreed to relaunch a bilateral dialogue on China and work together to address Russia’s “challenging behavior,” according to a statement Wednesday (24 March) from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell.
“They acknowledged a shared understanding that relations with China are multifaceted, comprising elements of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry,” the statement said.
The US will not force any NATO ally to choose sides between Washington and Beijing, Blinken said at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
European allies France and Germany are looking for a strategic balance in relations with Beijing and Washington that ensures the European Union is not so closely allied with one of the world’s two big powers that it alienates the other.
Eastern European members in particular are eager to develop close ties with China via the 17+1 initiative.
The EU, led by France, wants independence from the United States, its ally and protector for over seven decades. Spain and the Netherlands urged the bloc to keep its economy open while seeking “strategic autonomy”.
“Countries can work with China where possible,” Blinken said. He noted that climate change was an area where cooperation was necessary with a country of 1.34 billion people that already emits a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide, more than the United States, but is also an investor in renewable energy.
In his first trip to the EU headquarters, Blinken also urged the bloc to help stand up for liberal values and human rights, in a stark shift from four years under former US President Donald Trump, who shunned the EU and promoted Britain’s departure from the club of 27 states.
“There is a fundamental debate under way about … whether democracy or autocracy offers the best path forward. I think it is up to us to come together and show the world that democracy can deliver for our people,” Blinken said.
As the United States and China vie for supremacy in areas from electric cars to biomedicine, Blinken also accused Beijing of undermining the international trading order that the United States and its allies built after World War Two.
“They are actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share,” Blinken said of China, standing by the 30 flags of the NATO alliance. “If we work together to make real our positive vision for the international order … we’re confident that we can outcompete China on any playing field,” he said.
China’s military ambitions were also growing, he said.
But Brussels irritated Biden’s team by agreeing an investment deal with Beijing weeks before he took office.
Blinken said Washington wants to work with partners to “close the gaps in areas like technology and infrastructure, where Beijing is exploiting to exert coercive pressure.”
“We will rely on innovation, not ultimatums,” he said.
Blinken and Borrell announced after a meeting that the two sides were restarting a formal “dialogue on China” to discuss their approach to Beijing.
Borrell said that would involve meetings of senior officials and experts on issues including economic interests, human rights, security and climate change.
The US and EU took a first step towards joint action against Beijing by unveiling synchronised sanctions on Monday over the crackdown on the Uighurs in China.
China denies any wrongdoing and says it respects global rules upheld by international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund.
Prior to the speech, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Twitter: “The US, UK and Canada together account for only 5.7% of the world’s population. Even if EU is added, that will be about 11%. They cannot represent the international community.”
Blinken, speaking to reporters, said in reference to gross domestic product: “When we are actually working with our European partners, Asian partners and others, we might be 40, 50 or 60% of world GDP. That’s a lot harder for Beijing to ignore.”
The United States, the EU, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday accusing them of rights abuses in Xinjiang, in the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new President Joe Biden. Beijing hit back with broader punitive measures against the EU.
China’s decision to sanction European lawmakers, diplomats and institutes on Monday in response to Western sanctions appeared to galvanise opposition to Beijing at NATO and the EU, with several EU governments summoning Chinese envoys this week.
Italy said in a statement after meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Rome that the sanctions were “unacceptable”.
Russia and other bussiness
The US is also seeking to stand together with allies in the face of a more assertive Russia.
Blinken and Borrell during their meeting said they would address “Russia’s challenging behaviour, including its ongoing aggression against Ukraine and Georgia; hybrid threats, such as disinformation; interference in electoral processes; malicious cyber activities; and military posturing.”
Blinken raised Washington’s potential sanctions over the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany in a meeting with Berlin’s top diplomat Heiko Maas.
On the contentious issue of defence spending, Trump repeatedly harangued wealthy NATO members like Germany to reach a target of two percent of gross domestic product.
Blinken said this goal remained “crucial”, but softened Washington’s approach by admitting that allies could “shoulder their share of the burden in different ways”.
“No single number fully captures a country’s contribution to defending our collective security,” he said.
Among other issues the two ministers discussed were cooperation on climate action, Iran and Turkey. There appeared also to be a message for NATO members such as Turkey where the government has been accused of clamping down on the opposition and rights.
“We all must speak up when countries take steps that undermine democracy and human rights,” Blinken said.
“And we must help those countries move back in the right direction, by strengthening the guardrails of democracy.”
At an earlier meeting, Blinken pressed Turkey’s foreign minister over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian air defence system, withdrawal from a treaty on violence against women, and rights record.
Biden’s administration is still formulating its overall approach to Ankara – but maintains that it sees the country as an important ally that it wants to keep firmly in NATO.
During their meeting in Brussels, the two pledged to work together as well on the global distribution of safe and effective coronavirus vaccines, and to ensure they are prepared for future pandemics.