Biden and von der Leyen’s Developing Camaraderie Amidst Renewed US-EU Relations

  • The US President Joe Biden is determined to constrain the rise of China while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seeks to engage with it in order to further the EU’s hard power. 
  • Biden’s and Von Der Leyen’s shared commitment to strong transatlantic relations and shared support of a strategically autonomous EU could help them overcome these differences and form a common China agenda. 
  • Obstacles that remain include few tangible policy breakthroughs and the continuing existence of bilateral trade irritants but the two sides are beginning to address these challenges.
La Unión Europea y EEUU impulsarán un diálogo político sobre competencia  tecnológica
Ursula von der Leyen and Joe Biden, 2021 / Agencia EFE

Why is Biden in camaraderie with von der Leyen?

Answer: Both Biden and von der Leyen share a belief in strong transatlantic relations and a strategically autonomous EU. 

Biden is seeking to challenge the rising power of China. He is fully aware that he can only achieve this with the support of the EU. Having the US and the EU form a common China agenda is in principle a difficult task as they do not share the same economic and strategic priorities when it comes to China. However, Biden and von der Leyen share a common view of both the importance of transatlantic relations and what form they would like these relations to take. These common views could help them form a China agenda that suits both sides. 

Biden is a committed transatlanticist and has expressed that a transatlantic alliance is the cornerstone of “all that the [US] hopes to accomplish in the 21st century”. Moreover, while the US has been pushing for the EU to join it in taking a tougher stance on China, this does not mean that Biden wants the EU to be more dependent on the US. On the contrary, Biden has shown support for the EU’s strategic autonomy. When he attended a virtual summit of the European Council, Biden underlined that a strong EU is in the US’s interest and welcomed EU’s growing investment into its military capabilities. 

Von der Leyen has also stressed the importance of a strong transatlantic alliance, convinced that the EU benefits from it.  However, von der Leyen has also stated that such relations must be based on a strong EU. During her time as the German Defense Minister she has advocated for greater burden sharing and has persuaded German Chancellor Angela Merkel to increase Germany’s spending on defence.

That Biden and von der Leyen could share support for EU strategic autonomy may come as a surprise, particularly in the area of defense. It is commonly believed that increased EU strategic autonomy counters US security interests as it undermines NATO on which the US has historically relied to ensure stability in Europe and contain Russia. Such a view is based on the belief that the Common Security and Defense Policy of the EU (which is supposed to achieve EU strategic autonomy) provides a framework comparable to those of NATO thus making NATO redundant. 

However, such EU frameworks can also be viewed as supplementary to those of NATO. For instance, the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation in the areas of security and defense is meant to aid EU member states to develop shared military capability projects for both domestic and multinational purposes, notably the missions and operations of NATO. Furthermore, the EU is not advocating for a fully autonomous European force outside NATO. Finally, European strategic autonomy can even be viewed as answering to US demands that Europe contribute more to the upkeep of European and international security. In sum, as long as the EU and NATO clearly divide tasks in order to ensure that there will be no EU disengagement from NATO, it is possible for EU strategic autonomy to be compatible with US security interests.  

Lastly, it should be borne in mind that the concept of strategic autonomy is not exclusively tied to the area of defense. Therefore, a common recognition of the EU’s autonomy in broad terms could pave the way to the creation of a US-EU China policy that respects the EU’s desire to engage economically with China while at the same time fulfilling the US’s goal of constraining China’s rise through strengthened transatlantic relations. 

What does Biden want?

Answer: Biden has the ambitious goal of constraining China’s rise as the world’s greatest power.

Biden is determined not to let China become the world’s superpower. He has stated “on my watch, China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Such an attitude differs significantly from the stance that Biden held two years ago. Before, Biden had claimed that China is not serious competition for the US and that China’s strength was overstated. In line with such a view, Biden would have sought peaceful coexistence with China, similar to President Obama’s approach to China. However, in accordance with his new perception that China is capable of achieving its economic and geopolitical ambitions to the detriment of the US, Biden has pressed allies to adopt a tougher stance on China. 

Several factors can help explain this shift in how Biden perceives US-China relations. First, it is becoming increasingly clear that China’s rise poses a serious challenge to US power. China is expected to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade and may even surpass the US in terms of military strength. Second, even if Biden wanted to engage with China, institutional dynamics would have made this very difficult. Republican lawmakers are ready to intervene should there be any attempt to roll back tariffs and bans on exporting technology that were put in place during the Trump era. Third, public opinion is overwhelmingly negative of China according to a Pew Research Center survey. Roughly nine in ten US adults consider China a competitor rather than a partner and many support a firmer approach to bilateral relations with China. Fourthly, Biden has pointed out that the rule based international order is coming apart as autocracies are challenging democracies worldwide. Biden has taken a tougher stance on China therefore because he now perceives that the US competition with China is closely linked to whether or not liberal democracy can function in the 21st century.

The US can no longer counterweight China on its own and needs a strong network of European allies to help it. Formal EU-US strategic dialogue on China is already underway. The main points that the two sides will have to try and agree upon include among others curbing Chinese subsidies and theft of intellectual property, holding China accountable for human rights violations, and coordinating how to respond to Chinese influence in international organizations. 

What does Ursula von der Leyen want?

Answer: Increasing the EU’s strategic autonomy.

Ursula von der Leyen, wants the EU to become a geopolitical actor. She has claimed to head a geopolitical commision which in essence means that under her leadership strategic considerations, especially increasing the EU’s strategic autonomy, will play an important role in the Commission’s policy initiatives. Due to the importance von der Leyen gives to the EU becoming a geopolitical actor she must have had the EU’s strategic autonomy in mind when pursuing strengthened EU-China relations.

Von der Leyen has supported engagement with China and has recently stated that “it is not possible to shape the world of tomorrow without a strong EU-China partnership”. In December 2020 the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment was signed. Von der Leyen has stated that the deal “rebalances” EU-China relations by granting greater access to European investors in the Chinese market. The agreement is part of a larger trend of engagement with China which the EU has presumably pursued because such relations would help it grow economically and increase its hard power. 

However, von der Leyen has also been known to adopt a harsh tone towards China. Recently, she has stated that China and the EU have fundamental divergences with regards to their economic systems and how they manage democracy and human rights.  This statement follows a series of events that have soured EU-China relations. China has imposed sanctions on EU officials in response to sanctions imposed by the EU in relation to the Chinese crackdown of Muslim Uyghurs in the region of Xinjiang. In response to such actions the EU has postponed the ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.  

It follows that despite its economic interests in a strong relationship with China, the EU (and von der Leyen) is willing to take a harsher stance. However, this development should not be interpreted as the EU deciding to side with the US to the detriment of China. Indeed, strong transatlantic relations and engagement with China are not mutually exclusive and the EU will continue to pursue a middle ground. Rather this is a result of an EU struggle to reconcile its relations with China with its own values and more specifically is in line with a commitment to reconsider its trade policies with China through a geopolitical lense

What is Biden doing?

Answer: Biden has demonstrated the US’s commitment to transatlantic relations through diplomatic efforts and by addressing EU proposals from the new EU-US agenda for global change during the US-EU summit on June 15th.

After four years of tense relations under US President Donald Trump, Biden has started the rapprochement of diplomatic ties with the EU. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has attended several meetings in person. These include the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels, two NATO ministerial meetings and a G7 ministerial meeting as well as several smaller bilateral and regional events with individual European countries. As a result of these diplomatic efforts, Biden was invited by European Council President Charles Michel to attend a European Council summit

Moreover, while few tangible policy breakthroughs had occurred at the beginning of 2021, the US-EU summit on June 15th saw several advancements in US-EU relations. The US accepted the EU’s proposal to establish an EU-US Trade and Technology Council and the two sides agreed to establish an EU-US High-Level Climate Action Group, whereas there had until now been few concrete joint initiatives regarding transatlantic climate cooperation. Furthermore, the two sides took important steps to remove bilateral trade irritants. The US and the EU agreed to engage in discussions to resolve differences on steel and aluminum related measures and took steps to resolve the 17 year Boeing-Airbus trade dispute by suspending tariffs for 5 years and agreeing to cooperate on jointly analysing and addressing non-market practices of third parties that may harm the aircraft sector. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A common US-EU China agenda will make it harder for China to alter the international order (if that is what it aspires to do). 

The June 15th summit saw the strengthening of transatlantic relations as well as further US-EU cooperation when it comes to China. The joint effort to address non-market practices in the aircraft industry is targeted at China among other countries. This cooperation follows the synchronisation of sanctions on China for human rights violations as well as the commitment by certain EU member states (such as Germany and France) to help the US to push back on Chinese claims in the South China Sea

It follows from the above listed events that it is possible that a common China agenda between the US and the EU is agreed. However, it is less clear to what extent this will have an impact on today’s international order. The answer to this question depends on whether one agrees with Biden’s perception that China is undermining democracy globally. Similarly, while some claim that if China becomes the world’s greatest power economic nationalism may replace economic openness leading to a collapse of globalization, others challenge such a view stating that China’s rise will not result in reduced international economic integration. In sum, the importance of a transatlantic China agenda for safekeeping today’s liberal international order depends on whether one qualifies China as revisionist or not.