The United States and Europe pledged deeper cooperation on countering China on Wednesday, with an agreement to start a formal US-European Union dialogue on the issue and a pledge by Nato to close ranks with “like-minded democracies” in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We decided to continue 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,” said European Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell, the EU’s top official for foreign affairs.
“We share an assessment of China’s role as a partner, as a competitor, and as a … rival,” Borrell said. “We equally agree, and this is maybe all most important, to support the fullest possible involvement of the United States in the European Union Defence Initiative, and to enhance our dialogue on this issue.”
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US Secretary of State Blinken, who is in Brussels for most of this week, said that the US-EU dialogue was needed to confront “the challenges that China presents to the rules-based order that we both subscribe to”.
Earlier in the day, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a discussion with Blinken that he plans to build partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region as a bulwark against China, as the military alliance of 30 European and North American nations develops its strategic plan, known as Nato 2030.
“To strengthen partnerships with like-minded democracies is a way also to protect the rules-based international order. And of course, this is all about the consequences of the rise of China, and on many of the issues in Nato 2030.”
Blinken’s meetings with Borrell and Stoltenberg came as the new US administration held a series of meetings with Nato, the European Union, South Korea and the “Quad” countries of India, Japan and Australia over the past two weeks, seeking to shore up Washington’s alliances that were tested under the previous Trump administration.
The alliance-building efforts are also bookending the first high-level meeting between US and Chinese officials since US President Joe Biden took office in January.
Those talks mostly highlighted gaps between the two sides on many fronts, with a commitment to form a working group on climate change the only area of cooperation.
Blinken’s engagement with EU and Nato leaders is “a perfectly natural response to China’s rise and its recent international behaviour over the past several years, in the vacuum of alliance-building and maintenance on the part of the Trump Administration”, said Andrew Mertha, director of the China studies programme at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“The speed in which the Biden administration has been able to act underscores that this is something our allies have sought – and been denied – over the past four years,” he said. “China may well regard this as something akin to containment, but it is, in fact, the rapid deployment of a coherent policy that fills the utter absence of one under Trump.”
The closer coordination between Washington and Brussels this week also comes as China and European nations summoned each other’s ambassadors after the EU sanctioned Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
“The fact that Beijing has sanctioned senior European parliamentarians, policymakers and researchers has shifted the conversation on China in Europe in recent days,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The room for discussing a joint transatlantic response to growing Chinese diplomatic and economic assertiveness has grown significantly,” she said. “Key items on the agenda will be cooperation on emerging and green technologies, resilient supply chains, China’s market distorting practices, as well as human rights.”
Blinken said he agreed with Stoltenberg’s strategic vision for Nato, adding that the new concerns facing the military alliance include climate change, cybersecurity and “the rise of autocratic states and the challenges that they pose”.
“Our mission now is to make sure that we’re bringing Nato fully into this moment, to meet the challenges of today … and we look very much forward to working on that with the secretary general,” Blinken said.
However, even if the NATO allies are keenly aware of any challenges related to China, a formal expansion to Asia is still unlikely, said Erwan Lagadec, who leads the EU and Nato affairs programs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“From the Asian democracies’ perspective, most of them have existing security arrangements with the US,” he said. “Ultimately, when you sign on to Article 5, it’s not to get Icelandic support. It’s to get the US security guarantee.”
He added that many current Nato countries would not necessarily have the naval capacity to deploy in the Pacific either, should any military conflagration occur there.
“Stoltenberg has to be very precise when he says we need to look at China, he’s not saying that any Nato mission is going to be deployed with a Nato flag in the South China Sea,” Lagadec said. “Even if the political will was there, 28 out of the 30 Nato allies can’t do anything about it.”
Not only is the US Navy already spread throughout the area, Washington is working on strengthening ties there.
Earlier this month, Biden attended the first virtual meeting of the Quad, an informal grouping that is not a military alliance, but has been described by some as a “mini Nato”. Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met with their counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul last week.
Stoltenberg’s call for stronger ties with Asia-Pacific countries including Japan echoed a statement issued by the Quad, calling for the region to be “anchored by democratic values” – and for freedom of navigation and overflight as key objectives.
Biden is to join a session of an EU leaders summit on Thursday. His agenda for the meeting includes a discussion of “shared foreign policy interests, including China and Russia”, according to a White House statement.
Additional reporting by Jacob Fromer and Finbarr Bermingham
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