US sees no better friend than Germany, eyes common ground on Russia, China

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference in Berlin on June 23, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference in Berlin on June 23, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (AFP) - Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the United States had no better friend than Germany as the two nations pledged a common front on Russia and China following a still raw row over the Nord Stream pipeline.

Meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel on his first visit to Berlin since taking office, Mr Blinken on Wednesday (June 23) hailed the "shared values and shared interests" between the US and Europe's largest economic power.

"I think it's fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany," Mr Blinken said with Dr Merkel at his side.

Such flattering talk is common in diplomacy but Mr Blinken's superlative language quickly set ablaze social media in other nations eager for US affection - notably Britain, which earlier this month welcomed Mr Joe Biden on his first overseas trip as US President.

Mr Biden has vowed to restore alliances frayed during Mr Donald Trump's turbulent presidency and earlier welcomed to Washington the leaders of Japan and South Korea and met virtually with neighbouring Canada.

Mr Blinken is due to head on to France and Italy, which like Germany are members of the exclusive Group of Seven club of industrial democracies but unlike Britain remain in the European Union.

In a dramatic reversal from her unapologetically frosty relationship with Mr Trump, Dr Merkel said she saw a "common basis not only for naming the geopolitical challenges in the world but also for agreeing on a common approach".

"This applies to Russia, to China but also to the question of which alliances we can forge, where our interests lie," she said.

Mr Trump had berated Germany over what he saw as unfair trading practices and insufficient contributions to common defence and - in an extraordinary intervention against a friendly nation - lashed Dr Merkel's welcome to refugees.

A key source of tension has been the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline nearly completed from Russia to Germany, which the US and eastern European nations fear will embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Blinken reiterated US criticism but said that Germany was willing to address the underlying concern - that Russia will use gas as a "coercive tool" against smaller nations.

"Germany and the United States will keep standing together against any dangerous or provocative actions by Russia, whether that's encroaching on Ukraine's territory or imprisoning Alexei Navalny or spreading disinformation in our democracies," Mr Blinken told reporters, referring to the jailed dissident.

Mr Biden last month waived key sanctions on Nord Stream 2, drawing criticism even from some of his allies in Washington, after concluding that it was too late to stop the project and it was better to seek cooperation with Germany.

US officials have previously voiced hope that Germany will agree to outline automatic retaliatory steps that would be triggered if Russia steps up pressure on Ukraine.

Washington also wants the continuation of transit fee payments to Ukraine, which has been battling pro-Russian separatists, and sees Russian gas as a key source of leverage.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaking alongside Mr Blinken before a conference on Libya's fragile peace process, said Berlin had a range of possibilities and would act soon.

"We know the expectations in Washington and it's extremely important to us to achieve results that Washington can work with too," Mr Maas said.

He voiced hope for progress in time for Dr Merkel's visit to the White House on July 15 but said the key goal was to make decisions by August, when the Biden administration is again required by Congress to submit a report on the pipeline and sanctions.

The Biden administration has identified China as its top challenge, seeking to unify the West as it encourages a harder stance over Beijing's growing assertiveness at home and abroad.

Mr Blinken warned about the risks of doing business in the Xinjiang region, where Germany's biggest carmaker Volkswagen operates despite the mass incarceration of the Uighur minority.

"It's incumbent upon all of us to do whatever we can to make sure that products that may be result of forced labour are not coming into our countries," Mr Blinken said.