China-US relations: As Biden team gathers allies, it finds Asian partners more willing than Europe

Sarah Zheng, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 31 2021 07:57 AM

United States President Joe Biden's diplomatic overtures during his first week in office signalled an early effort to rally allies for a collective approach to China, a message that US partners in Asia have appeared more receptive to than those in Europe.

The Biden team's initial conversations with foreign leaders highlighted China and the security of the Indo-Pacific region as foreign policy priorities, as the US president's first calls this week were to close US allies, including Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. In the same vein, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin held conversations with other key US partners, including partners in the Quad security group - Japan, Australia and India - as well as defence allies the Philippines and Thailand.

"It's not a secret that the relationship between the United States and China is arguably the most important relationship that we have in the world going forward," Blinken told reporters on Wednesday. "It's going to shape a lot of the future that we all live, and increasingly that relationship has some adversarial aspects to it. It has competitive ones. And it also still has cooperative ones."

Analysts say the Biden administration will largely continue the tougher approach to China taken by the former Trump government, albeit by embracing relationships with allies in a way the previous administration disdained. This comes as public sentiment and a bipartisan political consensus in the US has shifted against China, and as Beijing took up an increasingly aggressive foreign policy approach during the pandemic and in defending its domestic political repression.

But while Washington's early efforts towards a more collective approach on China were embraced by governments in Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, there has been hesitancy from European leaders.

White House readouts of Biden's calls with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all included China as one of the shared foreign policy priorities, but this was noticeably left off statements coming from European records of the exchanges.

Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund's Asia Programme, said the Biden administration made clear in its initial calls that both China and the Indo-Pacific would be high on its agenda with allies, including explicitly with Europe.

"This is what they had signalled before taking office and now they're executing it, including very explicitly with European leaders," he said. "The Europeans may not be comfortable with the notion of a formal 'coalition' to deal with China, but that doesn't mean they're not willing to cooperate on the substance, issue by issue, or to take part in detailed coordination efforts on China with the new administration."

Analysts say there have been questions about Europe's reliability on China after it finalised an investment agreement with China before Biden's inauguration last year. But they say part of this also comes from lingering questions about the long-term trajectory of the US after the norm-shattering tumult of the Trump administration.

A survey published last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that Washington could not take European alignment on China for granted, with nearly 60 per cent of the 15,000 respondents from 11 European countries surveyed wanting their nation to remain neutral in a US-China conflict and 32 per cent believing Americans could not be trusted after Trump was elected in 2016.

Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that there was some hedging in Europe because of uncertainty about American leadership in the long term and because of China's growing economic power.

While the Europeans' investment deal with China indicated they were prepared to move out on their own, it meant that "even though the United States will establish as a priority working with democratic allies on China policy, there will be good days and bad days," he said.

But in Asia, reassurances by the Biden's team that the US was committed to the region were welcomed by leaders in the region.

Biden told his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday that the US had "unwavering commitment to the defence of Japan", including over the disputed Senkaku Islands that Beijing also claims and refers to as the Diaoyu Islands. Suga later told reporters that he wanted to "deepen his personal relationship with President Biden", noting the two leaders had agreed to refer to each other by their first names, Joe and Yoshi, to show the closeness of their countries.

Blinken told top Philippines diplomat Teodoro Locsin that their mutual defence treaty included the South China Sea, where Beijing's vast claims to most of the resource-rich waters overlaps with countries, including the Philippines. The Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Friday he welcomed "with great optimism" the US leadership change under Biden, and that "the strong and reliable friendship between the Philippines and US would flourish even further".

Small said some of the United States' Asian partners had worried that a Biden presidency would mean a return to the days of the Obama administration, when Biden served as vice-president for eight years.

But American commitments on the Senkakus, Taiwan and South China Sea, as well as the use of Indo-Pacific terminology showed that "elements of the Trump administration's approach were a reflection of long-term US strategy, not aberrational, and that the thinking on China has evolved significantly among many of those who served in prominent roles during previous administrations," he said.

Kupchan said that US partners in Asia were, for the most part, relieved that the US had returned to "a more familiar brand of statecraft" and to see the so-called pivot to Asia move ahead.

"The president made clear during the campaign and after he won the election, that he did intend to try to forge a united front of democratic allies on China policy," Kupchan said. "I think the major players in Northeast Asia that have traditionally been aligned with the United States are going to continue to do so ... in some ways, China's behaviour is pushing the democracies of the region to tighten their relationship with the United States, and I think the Biden administration will be more than happy to reciprocate."

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