'Transatlantic alliance is back': Biden seeks common front with Europe to counter China

(From left) US President Joe Biden in a video conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
(From left) US President Joe Biden in a video conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - United States President Joe Biden breathed new life into the transatlantic alliance in his first address to a global audience on Friday (Feb 19), calling on the US and Europe to work together to counter economic and security challenges from China and Russia, and common challenges like the pandemic.

"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 at the annual Munich Security Conference, speaking from the White House via video.

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 their need to band together to address the challenges posed by China and Russia, even as they acknowledged the need to cooperate with China on other issues.

Mr Biden urged them 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 that those in US and Europe adhere to, 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.

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 following Mr Biden's.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg likewise called on Europe and North America to defend the international rules-based order, which he said was "being challenged by authoritarian powers" who wanted to rewrite the rules to benefit their own interests.

"The rise of China is a defining issue for the transatlantic community, with potential consequences for our security, our prosperity and our way of life," Mr Stoltenberg said at the conference.

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 - 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."

Harvard University professor and former American diplomat Nicholas Burns said on Twitter: "This President Biden speech frames the major issue squarely: We must compete with autocracies - China and Russia - and defend democracies when they are challenged. The democratic world needs to be confident in its global role."

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.

"Overall, on the surface everything is great but beneath, they are basically avoiding the tough issues, at least in public," wrote Dr Wright.

"Biden will really need to develop and invest in a sophisticated Europe strategy if he is to unlock this and get the levels of transatlantic cooperation he desires."