PLYMOUTH, England – President Biden on Saturday urged the nations of Europe and Japan to counter China’s growing economic and security influence by providing hundreds of billions in funding to developing countries as an alternative to building new roads, railways, ports and communications networks in Beijing offer.
It was the first time the world’s richest nations discussed organizing a direct alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s overseas loan and investment plan that now spans Africa, Latin America and, hesitantly until it has spread to Europe itself. But the White House made no financial commitments, and there is sharp disagreement between the United States and its allies over how to respond to China’s growing power.
Mr Biden has made the challenge of an emerging China and a disruptive Russia at the heart of a foreign policy aimed at building democracies around the world as bulwarks against the spread of authoritarianism. For its part, Beijing has pointed to the US’s poor response to the pandemic and divisive American policies – particularly the January 6 uprising in the Capitol – as a sign that democracy is failing.
In scope and ambition, China’s development efforts far surpass the Marshall Plan, the United States’ program to rebuild Europe after World War II. At the Summit of the Group of Seven, discussions on Saturday about how to counteract this mirrored the debate in the West over whether to see China as a partner, a competitor, an adversary or an absolute security threat.
It is far from clear that the wealthy democracies will be able to come up with a comprehensive answer.
The plan described by the White House appeared to bring together existing projects in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and encourage private funding. An information sheet distributed to reporters named it “Build Back Better for the World,” with roots in Mr. Biden’s campaign theme – B3W for short, a game about China’s BRI.
He stressed the environment, anti-corruption efforts, the free flow of information and funding conditions that would allow developing countries to avoid excessive indebtedness. One of the criticisms of Belt and Road is that the nations that sign it become dependent on China, which gives Beijing too much leverage over them.
It was a sign of growing concern over the ubiquitous Chinese surveillance that the UK hosts of this year’s G7 meeting cut all internet and Wi-Fi connections in the room where the leaders met and removed them from the Decoupling the outside world.
Leaders broadly agree that China is using its investment strategy to both strengthen its state-owned enterprises and build a network of commercial ports and communication systems through Huawei, over which it would have significant control. But officials emerging from the meeting said Germany, Italy and the European Union are clearly concerned about risking their huge trade and investment deals with Beijing or accelerating what has increasingly taken on the tone of a new Cold War.
Mr Biden used the meeting to advance his argument that the fundamental struggle in the post-pandemic era will be democracy versus autocracies.
The first test could be whether he can convince the Allies to refuse participation in projects that rely on forced labor. It is unclear, American officials said what language about rejecting goods or investing in such projects would be included in the meeting’s final communiqué, which will be released on Sunday.
But the meeting comes just one day after Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken, who is traveling here with Mr. Biden, told his Chinese counterpart in a telephone conversation that the United States is actively opposing “ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in Xinjiang in far west China and “the deterioration of democratic norms” in Hong Kong. The European heads of state and government have largely avoided this terminology.
The divisions on how to view China help explain why the West has not yet found a coordinated response to the Belt and Road. A recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations described Washington’s own reactions as a “scattershot,” a mixture of modest adjustments by Congress to rules governing the Export-Import Bank to compete with high-tech Chinese loans and efforts to get Huawei to China’s telecommunications, outlaw champion.
The risk to American strategy is that dealing with a patchwork of separate programs – and Western insistence on good environmental and human rights practices – may seem less attractive to developing countries than Beijing’s all-in-one package of finance and new technology.
“Many BRI countries appreciate the speed with which China can move from planning to construction,” said the council report, written by a bipartisan group of China experts and former US officials.
These countries, she added, also value China’s “willingness to build what host countries want instead of telling them what to do and the ease with which to deal with a single group of builders, financiers and government officials.”
Still, Mr Biden feels an opening as European nations have begun to understand the risks of reliance on Chinese supply chains and watch China’s reach expand into their own backyards.
Britain, which once pursued arguably the most China-friendly policies in Europe, has firmly stood behind the American hard line, especially with regard to Huawei, which the US sees as a security threat. After trying to accommodate Huawei, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that it was ripping older Huawei devices from its networks.
Biden in Europe
June 12, 2021, 7:11 a.m. ET
Germany, for which China has become the number 1 market for Volkswagen and BMW, remains committed to its commitment and is profoundly opposed to a new Cold War. It has launched decisions about the use of Huawei and other Chinese-made network devices after Chinese officials threatened to retaliate by banning the sale of German luxury cars in China.
Italy became the first member of the G7 to join the Belt and Road in 2019. It then had to resign in part under pressure from NATO allies who feared that Italian infrastructure, including the telecommunications network, would depend on Chinese technology.
When China sent face masks and ventilators to a desperate Italy during the Covid outbreak, an Italian official told his fellow Europeans stressed that the country would remember who its friends were after the pandemic.
France has not joined Belt and Road, despite welcoming Chinese investment in the country and not banning Huawei from its wireless network. Relations with China have cooled after President Emmanuel Macron criticized Beijing for its lack of transparency about the origins of the coronavirus.
“America would be well served if the European Union works together and defines a coherent China strategy,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the USA. “Interests are not served well if there is a German China strategy, a French China strategy and a British China strategy.”
That’s easier said than done. Britain moved closer to the US under pressure from former President Donald J. Trump – less because it changed its view of China’s strategy or security risks than because it feared being isolated from its key ally after Brexit.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who firmly believes in her commitment to China, will resign in a few months. But not much is likely to change in Germany’s politics, especially if her successor as CDU leader Armin Laschet takes over from her in the Chancellery. He is considered to be in step with Ms. Merkel.
France is a different story. Macron faces a formidable challenge from the populist right in next year’s elections. Right-wing leader Marine LePen has vowed to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Whenever you have one of these meetings, you will see a fluid movement in one country or another,” said Simon Fraser, a former top official in the UK Foreign Office. But he added: “There is a lack of cohesion on the European side that needs to be addressed”.
Italy is a good test case of how China has tried to build influence in Europe. Since joining Belt and Road, Rome has signed nearly two dozen agreements with Beijing, ranging from tax rules to sanitary rules for pork exports. However, Italy also vetoed a 5G deal between Huawei and one of its telecommunications companies.
At the heart of China’s investment in Europe is a rail network that would connect its factories on the Pacific Ocean to London – a project China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang once called an expressway to Europe. Italy, which has a terminus on the route, welcomes the investment as a tonic for its ailing economy.
But Britain’s relations with China are frozen. The government imposed sanctions on China’s treatment of the Uyghur population and offered residency and access to citizenship to more than 300,000 British foreign passport holders in Hong Kong after China imposed a draconian national security law on the former British colony.
According to analysts, China’s human rights record is hardening European attitudes across the board. The European Parliament refused to ratify a landmark investment agreement backed by Germany as China stubbornly responded to sanctions for its treatment of Uyghurs. China has sanctioned ten EU politicians.
There is also evidence that Mr Biden realizes that his aggressive language about China – as the great adversary in a fateful struggle between democracies and autocracies – is uncomfortable for many Europeans. He largely avoided this framing in the days leading up to his European tour and spoke more generally about the need to promote democracies in a competitive world.
For some analysts, this opens the door to a hopeful scenario in which the United States and Europe are moving towards each other, moderating the most extreme aspects of the confrontation towards reconciliation in each other’s approaches.
“America becomes more realistic from the hard line to China, while Europe becomes more realistic from the soft line,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a think tank in London.