Biden seeks common front with Europe to counter China, Russia

US President declares determination to re-engage with transatlantic allies

United States President Joe Biden addressing the Munich Security Conference via video link from the White House on Friday. Mr Biden urged European nations to join the US in shaping the rules governing technology and its use to uphold democratic value
United States President Joe Biden addressing the Munich Security Conference via video link from the White House on Friday. Mr Biden urged European nations to join the US in shaping the rules governing technology and its use to uphold democratic values, instead of allowing tech to be used for repression.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

United States President Joe Biden breathed new life into the transatlantic alliance in his first address to a global audience on Friday.

He declared that America had returned to multilateralism as he called on the US and Europe to work together to counter economic and security challenges from China and Russia.

"America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together," said Mr Biden at the annual Munich Security Conference, speaking from the White House via video link.

"I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership," Mr Biden said.

His speech came hours after a virtual meeting with other leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) countries. In their joint statement afterwards, the world leaders resolved to work together to beat Covid-19 and "build back better" - a campaign slogan used by both Mr Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

"Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism and to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet," said the statement.

What emerged from the blitz of transatlantic diplomacy was clear agreement on the need to band together to address the challenges posed by China and Russia, even amid acknowledgement of the need to cooperate with China on other issues.

Mr Biden urged his audience to prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China, in particular pushing back against what he described as its economic abuses.

For instance, Chinese companies should be held to the same standards as those in the US and Europe, Mr Biden said, citing publicly disclosing their corporate governance structures and abiding by anti-corruption practices as examples.

This echoed the text of the G-7 joint statement, which pledged to "consult with each other on collective approaches to address non-market-oriented policies and practices", while vowing to engage with China and others to support a fair and mutually beneficial global economy.

Mr Biden also urged European nations to join the US in shaping the rules governing technology and its use to uphold democratic values, instead of allowing technology to be used for repression.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the US and Europe need a "joint agenda" on China, while warning that their interests would not always converge.

She also acknowledged that responding to China would be more complex because China was both a competitor and a partner in dealing with global problems like climate change.

"In recent years, China has gained more power on the international stage, and we as a transatlantic alliance and as democratic countries need to react to that," she said in her speech, after that of Mr Biden.

The US was even more vocal in framing the friction as an ideological struggle of democracies against autocracies - a central theme of Mr Biden's message.

"We're at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face - from the fourth Industrial Revolution to a global pandemic - that autocracy is the best way forward, and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges," said Mr Biden.

Demonstrating that democracies can still deliver was their galvanising mission, he added, saying: "Democracy will and must prevail."

Centre for a New American Security senior fellow Martijn Rasser told The Sunday Times: "The President's speech was effective in that he made it clear that America is turning the page on the past four years and is eager to engage with Europe."

He called the speech a sober yet urgent call to action, saying: "A key message was that neither Europe nor the United States can go it alone and be assured that they can effectively safeguard their values, economic competitiveness, or national security as enjoyed today."

But analysts also noted that while the US defined democracy as essential, the Europeans did not describe it quite as centrally, focusing more on other issues instead.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Wright observed on Twitter that Dr Merkel mentioned competition with China only in passing, and generally avoided the democracy-versus-autocracy concept.

French President Emmanuel Macron also spent most of his speech championing his top priority of European "strategic autonomy" from the US as Washington focused more on Asia.

But Mr Rasser said it was relatively low-hanging fruit for the US and Europe to work together to shape technology norms, among other things.

"We share democratic values and alarm over expanding repression, such as in Xinjiang. Leadership and action on this matter by the transatlantic partners sends a powerful message to autocrats around the world," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2021, with the headline 'Biden seeks common front with Europe to counter China, Russia'. Subscribe