THE EUROPEAN UNION concluded 2020 by striking an opportunistic note in its relations with China: Brussels has agreed to a new economic deal with Beijing that will clear the way for wider investment in the People’s Republic by E.U.-based companies, in spite of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and imposition of forced labor in the majority-Muslim Xinjiang region. The benefits of more favorable terms for German auto manufacturers operating in China caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular, to push for the deal, though Europe did extract a fig-leaf concession from China in the form of an agreement to “continued and sustained” efforts to ratify international labor conventions against forced labor.

The new E.U.-China deal, which the European Parliament still must ratify, is a diplomatic coup for China. It is also an indicator that President Trump’s belligerent “America First” approach may have done lasting damage to transatlantic relations. First, Mr. Trump alienated traditional U.S. allies in Europe by accusing them of “treating us very badly” in trade — even “worse than China,” he asserted at one point. Then, he abated tariffs on Beijing in return for a “phase one” market-access deal at the beginning of this year, giving Europe both a rationale and an incentive to do the same.

Brussels seems to have concluded that it must hedge against the possibility the changes Mr. Trump made will prove at least in part irreversible even after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. At least that’s one way to interpret the fact that the E.U. pressed on with its China deal despite a Dec. 21 public invitation from Mr. Biden’s national security adviser-designate, Jake Sullivan, to “early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”

The Biden administration has to thread a tricky needle if it wants to pivot from President Trump’s aggressive approach to China. (The Washington Post)

No Western democratic country has clean hands when it comes to economic relations with China; all have pursued self-interest at the expense of at least some professed principles. It was the United States, after all, that spearheaded Beijing’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization two decades ago, acting on the now evidently naive justification that this would encourage the country’s communist rulers to adopt more lawful behavior both at home and abroad. Given the sheer size of China’s economy, there is probably no practical alternative to doing business with Beijing at some level.

However, the West could exercise more control over the terms on which it engages with Beijing, now that it is clear the Xi government intends no fundamental change on human rights or its mercantilist economic practices — or its aggressive military posture toward Taiwan. The United States and other democracies will succeed only if they act as a united front. Mr. Biden has, sensibly, proposed to do just that, beginning with a restoration of U.S.-European relations. He should follow through on this promise, the urgency of which the latest E.U.-China deal ironically has demonstrated. Mr. Trump’s policies have encouraged and enabled Beijing to play the allies off against one another, but Mr. Biden still has a chance to repair the breach.

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