US presidential election: Europe congratulates Biden as China challenge looms

Stuart Lau
·5-min read

US President-elect Joe Biden is widely expected to rebuild a closer relationship with traditional allies in Europe, where officials are keen to forge a common response to the rise of China.

In his victory speech, Biden vowed to “make America respected around the world again”, adding: “Tonight, the whole world is watching America. I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

German officials were particularly enthusiastic about Biden’s ousting of Donald Trump, who has attacked Berlin and Brussels as hard as Beijing and refused to shake hands with Chancellor Angela Merkel after he took office four years ago.

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In contrast to her grim tone after Trump’s win against Hillary Clinton, Merkel offered warm congratulations for Biden, who will formally take over the White House in January – just months before Merkel will step down from her 15-year rule over Europe’s biggest economy.

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“Congratulations! The American people have made their decision,” she said in a statement posted on her spokesman’s Twitter account, adding an exclamation mark in an unusual show of emphasis for the usually measured German chancellor.

“I look forward to working with President Biden. Our transatlantic friendship is indispensable if we are to deal with the major challenges of our time.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas made it clear that China is one of those challenges.

“After the election, we will approach the elected government and make specific proposals on how we can close the transatlantic ranks: in dealing with actors like China, in climate protection, in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic,” Maas wrote on Twitter.

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“[Biden] sees the US’ political strength in team play.

“We also want the West to play as a team again. This is the only way we can assert our values in the world.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said: “The EU and the USA are friends and allies, our citizens share the deepest of links. I look forward to working with President-elect Biden.”

Emmanuel Macron, one of few European leaders to have Trump’s respect, also focused on unity.

“We have a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges. Let’s work together!”

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Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign affairs official who last month launched an EU-US dialogue with the Trump administration, said of Biden’s victory: “Great day for US and Europe, we look forward to working together with the new administration to rebuild our partnership.”

Trump, who insisted the election result was a fraud, has won few friends with his go-it-alone “America first” mantra, disregard for climate change, lukewarm attitude to the transatlantic security umbrella Nato, and threats to engage in a trade war with the EU.

Macron, for instance, has stepped up his call for Europe’s own strategic autonomy away from the US, calling Nato’s collective defence “brain dead” amid Trump’s plan to pull out troops from Germany.

But the Trump administration’s constant portrayal of China as a geopolitical rival has coincided with the EU’s own unease about Beijing’s role in the world, a sentiment that analysts say could pave the way for a “transatlantic united front” under a Biden presidency.

Michael Carpenter, a key foreign policy adviser to Biden, said the new president-elect would unite Europe as “friends and allies” when it came to China.

“Donald Trump’s approach to China [was] a very narrow preoccupation with a trade deficit,” Carpenter said. “What a Biden administration will do … is work together with our partners across the world to put up a united front and to end this systemic manipulation.”

Benjamin Haddad, an expert on US-French relations at the Atlantic Council, called the US-EU bond “America’s best asset”, adding: “A Biden administration will recognise that and engage the EU to tackle global challenges, from China to climate change.”

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For European officials, working with the US on China would require Washington to abandon its sceptical if not hostile approach towards the EU.

“While a Biden administration would share many of Trump’s views of China, there will be a different focus on trying to bring along US allies and partners in a way Trump has failed to do so far,” said Erik Brattberg, Europe director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. “European diplomats will have more trust in the US approach under a Biden administration.”

A big headache for Beijing is whether Germany – with its massive business interests with China – will also move closer towards the US position.

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“Germany is eager to work with Washington on a reform of the World Trade Organization, but a truly effective transatlantic agenda on China will have to go well beyond trade,” said Noah Barkin, an expert on EU-China relations at Rhodium Group, a research firm. “For Germany, it will mean thinking more strategically and accepting that it will pay an economic price.”

An EU official with knowledge of top European leaders’ thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed that a Biden presidency would “open new debates along new parameters” on how best to handle China.

But, underlining the complexity of getting the EU machine moving, he also cautioned: “Don’t expect too drastic changes immediately.”

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