Merkel, Biden face tough talks on Russian gas pipeline, China

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected opposition from the US and eastern European neighbours to the almost completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (REUTERS) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Joe Biden hold talks at the White House on Thursday (July 15) that experts say are unlikely to yield major breakthroughs on divisive issues like a Russian gas pipeline to Germany and a United States push to counterbalance China.

Both sides have said they want to reset ties strained during the presidency of Mr Donald Trump.

Yet their positions on the most divisive issues remain far apart.

Dr Merkel has rejected opposition from the US and eastern European neighbours to the almost completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline which they fear Russia could use to cut out Ukraine as a gas transit route, depriving Kiev of lucrative income and undermining its struggle with Moscow-backed eastern separatists.

And during her 16 years in power, she has worked hard for closer German and European economic ties with China, which the Biden administration sees as a global threat that it wants to counter with a joint front of democratic countries.

"The problem for the US is that Merkel has the upper hand, because she has decided that the status quo in the trans-Atlantic relationship is good enough for Germany," said Dr Ulrich Speck, an independent foreign policy analyst. "Biden by contrast needs to win over Germany for his new China strategy."

Officials from both sides are engaged in intense discussions to resolve the issue and stave off the re-imposition of sanctions that Mr Biden waived in May.

Mr Biden has opposed the project, but he is also facing increasing pressure from US lawmakers to reimpose sanctions.

"Nord Stream 2 is the area where you most realistically can expect progress," said Mr Thorsten Benner of the Global Public Policy Institute. "Merkel may hope to get away with providing guarantees for Ukraine's continued role as a gas transit country and a vague snapback mechanism that would kick in if Russia seeks to cut transit through Ukraine."

A senior US administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Biden would underscore his opposition when he meets with Dr Merkel, but the waiver had given diplomatic space for both sides to "address the negative impacts of the pipeline".

Transit country

"Our teams are continuing to discuss how we can credibly and concretely ensure that Russia cannot use energy as a coercive tool to disrupt Ukraine, eastern flank allies or other states," the official said.

Dr Merkel, who will step down after an election in September, vowed during a news conference on Monday with visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Germany and the European Union (EU) will guarantee Ukraine's status as a transit country.

"We promised Ukraine and will keep our promise," said Dr Merkel. "It is my custom to keep my word and I believe this applies to every future chancellor."

The issue of China is more complicated.

Dr Merkel was an advocate of an investment pact between the EU and China struck late last year on the eve of Mr Biden taking office, and she has been criticised for not facing up to Beijing on human rights violations in Hong Kong and against a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, which the US has labelled a genocide.

"There will likely be a joint call by Biden and Merkel for China to step up its efforts on carbon reduction and global health, maybe a reference to the need to further open the Chinese market," Mr Benner said. "But don't expect anything from Merkel that will remotely look like there is a joint trans-Atlantic front on China."

The two countries also remain at odds over a proposed temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to help increase production of Covid-19 vaccines, a measure backed by Washington, and the US' refusal to ease travel restrictions on visitors from Europe.

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