Challenge for Biden as Europe charts own course on Russia, China

WASHINGTON • Two weeks after US President Joe Biden's inauguration, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke publicly about the importance of dialogue with Moscow, saying Russia is a part of Europe that cannot simply be shunned and that the continent must be strong enough to defend its own interests.

On Dec 30, just weeks before the inauguration, the European Union clinched an important investment agreement with China. This came days after a tweet by Mr Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan asking for "early consultations" with Europe on China and seeming to caution against a quick deal.

So even as the US resets under a new White House leadership, Europe is charting its own course on Russia and China in ways that do not necessarily align with Mr Biden's goals, posing a challenge as he sets out to rebuild a post-Trump alliance with the continent.

Mr Biden's remarks at the Munich Security Conference yesterday were set to repeat that promise and spotlight his now-familiar call for a more unified Western front against the anti-democratic threats posed by Russia and China.

But if by "leadership" Mr Biden means a return to the traditional US assumption - we decide and you follow - many Europeans feel that world is gone and Europe must not behave like the US' junior wingman in fights defined by Washington.

Europe has its own set of interests and ideas about how to manage the US' two main rivals, demonstrated by the EU's trade deal with China and the conciliatory talk about Moscow from leaders like Mr Macron and Germany's likely next chancellor Armin Laschet. This will complicate Mr Biden's diplomacy.

Dr Ulrich Speck, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said: "After the freeze in relations under Trump, I expected more warming. I don't see it yet."

Mr Biden quickly took many of the easiest steps toward reconciliation and unity with Europe, including vowing to rejoin the disintegrating 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But aligning against Russia and China will be much more difficult.

China may be a peer rival for the US, but it has long been a vital trade partner for Europe. And while European leaders see Beijing as a systemic rival and competitor, they also see it as a partner and hardly view it as an enemy.

And Russia remains a nuclear-armed neighbour, however truculent, and has financial and emotional leverage of its own.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2021, with the headline 'Challenge for Biden as Europe charts own course on Russia, China'. Subscribe