Claims that Joe Biden was an “old friend” of China’s leader Xi Jinping were always going to be tested once he took office (see WiC518).
But the way that the American president has been working on putting together a new alliance against the Chinese means that whatever remains of their personal relationship must be eroding fast.
Biden was doing his best to widen the gulf again last weekend in conversations with allies at the G7 summit in the UK that framed the struggle with Beijing as a battle between democrats and autocrats.
Senior figures warmed to the theme on the summit’s sidelines, including Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister. “It’s an autocracy that does not adhere to multilateral rules and does not share the same vision of the world that the democracies have,” he said of China in comments that surely signpost Rome’s departure from the Belt and Road investment deal it signed with Beijing two years ago (see WiC445).
In fact, a newly titled programme to help low and middle income countries with hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment was one of the few concrete initiatives to be announced at the G7 meeting (there was also a commitment to donate a billion Covid-19 vaccines to less developed countries).
Details for the awkwardly named Build Back Better World (or B3W) are thin on the ground and critics are already questioning where the G7 will find the funds for the plan. Yet Biden grabbed the chance to use it against China’s Belt and Road Initiative as another means of bringing like-minded countries together. The summit’s closing communiqué promised a “values-driven, high-standard and transparent” partnership to nations that join the new infrastructure plan.
“The investment comes without strings attached compared to China’s,” EU President Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews, reinforcing the Chinese component.
In fact the closing communiqué saw the G7 take a more confrontational position towards China than at any point in that group’s history. There was a promise to challenge policies that undermine the fair operation of the global economy and a demand that Beijing “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Biden pushed hard on the issue of China limiting access to its laboratories as he demanded the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak be determined. The communiqué fell in step calling for a “timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based” study into the disease’s origins.
Also significantly Taiwan got a direct mention for the first time, with a reference to the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Summit attendees also expressed opposition to “any unilateral attempt” to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.
There was speculation that Biden hadn’t been able to corral some of the Europeans into a fuller rebuke of the Chinese, however. For instance, when he pushed for direct condemnation of the alleged use of forced labour in factories in Xinjiang he is said to have ran into opposition from a few of his allies, who did not want to rile Beijing further.
In comments reflecting a similar line, German Chancellor Angela Merkel later cautioned that China was “our partner in many aspects”, and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that the G7 needed to work with Beijing on issues including climate change and trade. “I will be very clear: the G7 is not a club hostile to China,” he assured.
Naturally, that was not how the Chinese saw the situation. Even before the final statement was released China’s embassy in London was firing retaliatory shots, fulminating that “the days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone”.
After the communiqué came out, the Chinese accused the G7 of “lies, rumours and baseless accusations”, adding that the references to Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan exposed the “sinister intentions of a few countries such as the United States”. By then Biden had already moved on to the NATO summit in Brussels, where the Chinese made another debut appearance in the closing statement for behaviour that presented “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”.
That was a new departure for the Russia-focused military alliance and far too much for China’s delegation at the EU, which tweeted furiously that NATO was “slandering China’s peaceful development”.
“China will not present ‘systematic challenges’ to anyone, but we will not sit by and do nothing if ‘systematic challenges’ come closer to us,” it warned.
Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal was commenting on how a determination to ‘contain’ China has been one of the few policy measures to survive the Trump administration and deepen under Biden. The newspaper also outlined how Washington is going to new lengths to dissuade other nations from relying on Chinese 5G technology.
“The US government is ratcheting up pressure on Beijing’s 5G ambitions overseas, offering financial incentives and other enticements to countries willing to shun Chinese made telecom gear,” the Wall Street Journal noted. It added that American officials have published guidelines and run workshops that target Central and Eastern European countries in explaining how 5G networks can be built without equipment made by Huawei or ZTE.
“While not part of the weekend G7 initiative, Washington’s new incentives for avoiding Chinese telecom purchases underscores the US’s special focus on the telecom industry,” the newspaper said.
In support of this campaign a bipartisan group in Congress last month introduced a bill that would offer financial aid to Central and Eastern European countries if the funds are used to purchase non-Chinese telecoms equipment.
Of course, some of Biden’s counterparts at the G7 and NATO summits may wonder whether inducements like these will be available over the long term. The same might be said of the B3W infrastructure plan, which is already years behind China’s well-established programme of loans and infrastructural spending under the BRI.
The worry is that in 2024 a Republican could be back in the White House, with either Trump himself or one of his political acolytes pursuing an ‘America First’ foreign policy once again. Overseas allies – battered during the tumultuous Trump presidency – suspect that ‘continuity’ is not a word you can easily use to describe the US political scene in the year’s ahead….
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.