The EU’s High Representative, Josep Borrell, has previously described the EU’s global diplomatic strategy as Europeans doing it ‘My Way’ in reference to Frank Sinatra’s famous song.
But this new so-called Sinatra doctrine risks creating a new wedge in transatlantic relations between Biden and his European allies when it comes to China.
Unlike Biden, who agrees with Trump in seeing the rise of China as a threat to American interests, most European nations are committed to forging an apparently ever-closer relationship with Beijing.
Europe sees China as the future
This shift towards China can be seen clearly in public attitudes among European citizens.
A survey of 15,000 people in 11 European countries last month indicated that a majority of Europeans believe America’s political system is broken, that China will be the leading power in the world within 10 years, and that President Biden will be unable to halt US decline on the world stage after the Trump administration.
So it is not surprising that last month German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Davos World Economic Forum
refused to take America’s sides against China.
She said that she agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping who had spoken out the day before against a new Cold War with the West.
“I would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs,” she said, according to Politico.
“I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other. This is not my understanding of how things ought to be.”
Showing impeccable Franco-German alignment, French President Macron also used an Atlantic Council event on February 4 to warn against “a situation to join all together against China, arguing this would be “a scenario of the highest possible conflictuality (sic).”
Europe refuses to condemn Chinese human rights abuses
A few weeks earlier, the European Union announced that the EU and China had concluded in principle the negotiations for a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).
This announcement came after seven years of negotiations and was possible thanks to the personal intervention of President Xi, who had made last-minute concessions to seal the deal before the end of the year.
The CAI improves market access for European companies to the Chinese market in a number of areas. But it fails to
redress substantially the imbalance between EU and Chinese market access: The EU market remains much more open
to Chinese investment than vice versa.
Nor will it address the Chinese treatment of labor rights, which were reportedly the last hurdle in the negotiation of the agreement.
Forced labor is well documented in China, including in special camps in its western region of Xinjiang, and there are no independent trade unions. The European Commission highlighted that the deal commits China “to working towards the ratification of the outstanding ILO [International Labor Organization] fundamental Conventions.”
But it does not entail any deadline for the ratification of these Conventions. Shi Yinhong, an advisor to China’s State
Council, pointed out that China will never agree to change its rules on labor rights. In fact, this would be incompatible
with China’s party-state system of governance.
Asked before the conclusion of negotiations how the EU could sign an investment agreement, Merkel replied: “We take
these ILO standards very seriously and will make a good balance.” But how can the EU really balance economic benefits with value losses? How much economic gain justifies implicitly condoning human rights abuses?
The EU China deal is a major diplomatic victory for China
On the other hand, the CAI is beneficial to China in three main respects. First, the deal preserves and encourages EU
investment in China, to fuel China’s economy and technological development. Second, it legitimizes the regime in the
eyes of domestic and international public opinion (despite recent behavior in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the CAI hinders policy coordination on China between the EU and the United States under the new Biden administration.
Such coordination could result in a united front against China and would be more difficult to handle than dealing with
each separately. However, as we heard from the German and French leaders, China can be reassured there will be no
such common front.
Biden wanted Europe to stand with the US against China
Before his inauguration, Biden had declared his desire to work more closely with US allies and partners in order to
coordinate a stronger response to China. However, European partners chose not to take heed, preferring to clinch an immediate deal with China instead.
Last October, under the Trump Administration, the EU and the US had agreed to hold a regular high-level dialogue on
China. However, the dialogue has not yet taken place.
Biden pledged during his election campaign to organize during his first year in office a global Summit for Democracy, to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values”, including
“defending against authoritarianism”.
Given the experience of the CAI and the recent statements by the German and French leaders, it is clear that the US
President cannot count on the Europeans to form an alliance against Chinese authoritarianism.
It must now instead turn to other democracies in Asia or seek smaller coalitions of like-minded partners elsewhere.
- Theresa Fallon is the founder and director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies (CREAS) in Brussels