World

A Hesitant, Half-Hearted Stand against China

President Joe Biden and other NATO heads of the states and governments during the NATO summit at the alliance’s headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool/Reuters)

Beijing appeared piqued by the transatlantic unity on display as a triumphant Joe Biden marshaled his European counterparts to defend world order at a dizzying series of summits in Cornwall and Brussels this week. Today, it sent 28 jets through Taiwan’s air-defense-identification zone, its largest-ever incursion. But surely Chinese Communist Party officials, and other American adversaries, were also relieved that the statements from these meetings were watered down by hesitant European governments.

The G-7, NATO, and U.S.-EU summits yielded communiqués setting out ambitious goals aimed at shoring up and retooling these alliances for the 21st century’s greatest challenges, among which the president says is autocracy’s global competition with democracy. “I think we’ve made some progress in reestablishing American credibility among our closest friends,” Biden said at the G-7 summit. There, the leaders of the world’s largest economies committed to hundreds of billions of dollars in global infrastructure investment to counter the Belt and Road Initiative and called out Chinese human-rights abuses.

National-Security Adviser Jake Sullivan explained how the G-7 delivered an apparently unified statement on China despite disagreements between members. “When you add it all up, actually, the whole became greater than the sum of its parts, because there is a broad view that China represents a significant challenge to the world’s democracies.” 

The math can be described otherwise: These alliances can go only as fast as the lowest common denominator of agreement between these countries allows them to go. Which is why these gatherings yielded directionally promising statements but were nevertheless hindered by countries who are loath to confront the CCP. The G-7 explicitly rapped Beijing for its coercion of Taiwan and human-rights abuses, while making oblique mention of forced-labor practices in a separate section — because EU, German, and Italian officials were more circumspect. The portion on COVID origins calls for a transparent investigation, but it calls for one under the aegis of the compromised WHO investigation process.

Brussels featured much of the same. The NATO communiqué took a commendably tough stand against cyberattacks and rebuked Moscow and Beijing, while Biden used the summit as an opportunity to meet with Eastern European allies directly in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. Nevertheless, European leaders took that summit as the occasion to air their hesitance to alienate Beijing. 

“NATO is a North Atlantic organization, China has nothing to do with the North Atlantic,” said Emmanuel Macron. “We shouldn’t bias our relationship with China — it is much larger than just the military.” His German counterpart took a similar line; Angela Merkel weighed in against ignoring the threat posed by Beijing but also warned against overrating it. Viktor Orban, embattled at home over his government’s support of bringing a Chinese university to Budapest, cautioned against starting a Cold War: “I spent 26 years of my life in Cold War. Believe me, it’s bad.” Although the NATO communiqué mentions China ten times, it fails to label the country an adversary.

Reading too closely into diplomatic minutia would be a mistake; the administration should be graded according to its ability to lead the alliance in concrete terms. And it deserves credit for marshaling a display of unity, including settling the long-running Boeing-Airbus dispute with the EU. Biden obviously didn’t go the Trump route of needlessly antagonizing America’s European allies (going beyond a well-deserved chiding for dereliction of their defense-spending commitments) and often leaving his support of NATO’s collective-defense principle an open question.

Yet Biden seems to be taking the opposite of that approach: Offering rhetorical niceties without the ballast of tough-minded Trump-era policies that wrung some additional defense spending out of Europe, rallied European allies to keep Huawei out of their networks, and, significantly, spent more on our defense budget. 

Regarding the last, it is perverse that at a time when Washington is nominally trying to rally the West against dual revisionist threats out of Beijing and Moscow — and is trying to spend $6 trillion on sundry domestic priorities — the president has proposed, in real terms, slight defense spending cuts. Meanwhile, as it rushed to embrace the outgoing German government, his administration left Ukraine and Poland in the dark about its decision to waive sanctions on entities involved in constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Statements are fine as far as they go, but the pushback against China and Russia will require sterner stuff. 

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