“America is back at the table,” Biden said at a news conference Sunday. “The lack of participation in the past and in full engagement was noticed significantly not only by the leaders of those countries, but by the people in the G-7 countries, and America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values.”
But looming over the deliberations this week is the challenge represented by the expanding reach and influence of China. And on this front, Biden is not so much turning the page on the Trump era but reading from a similar script.
Biden emerged from the G-7 with a joint communique that called, in his words, for “plenty of action on China.” It included collective condemnation of China’s labor practices and human rights abuses, demands for further investigations into the Chinese origins of the coronavirus and plans for a global investment and infrastructure project to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China will also shadow proceedings at the NATO summit in Brussels, where Biden landed Sunday evening. The transatlantic alliance’s leaders are expected to release a declaration that for only the second time explicitly makes reference to the perceived Chinese threat — the first came at Trump’s prodding in 2019.
In public, some European leaders echoed Biden’s concerns. “It’s an autocracy that does not adhere to multilateral rules and does not share the same vision of the world that the democracies have,” Italian prime minister Mario Draghi said Sunday at the summit’s conclusion, speaking to reporters about China. “We need to cooperate but we also need to be frank about things that we do not share and do not accept. The U.S. president said that silence is complicity.”
But in private, clear differences remain. G-7 nations with a significant stake in the Chinese market, including Japan and Germany, are more wary of taking an overtly hawkish and confrontational line with China, even as public attitudes harden toward Beijing. “There is a little differentiation, I think I would say, within — within, I think, the spectrum of how hard they would push on some of these issues,” said a U.S. official, who spoke to my colleagues about G-7 deliberations on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the conversation on the record.
Those differences extend to NATO, where some members don’t share the alarm of the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who warned last month that China was “coming to us” — gesturing to Beijing’s advanced capabilities in cyber space, as well as its growing strategic footprint in both Africa and the Arctic. “It’s clear that Europeans have no desire to be between the hammer and anvil,” Bruno Lété, senior fellow of security and defense at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, told the Wall Street Journal. “China is a potential bone of contention. It’s a splitter.”
In some instances, NATO members are already beholden to significant Chinese interests. A Chinese state shipping company owns a controlling stake in Greece’s largest port. Hungary’s right-wing government has conspicuously close ties to Beijing and recently blocked a European Union statement condemning China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. Before heading off to the NATO summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country’s central bank had secured a deal with China to increase an existing currency swap facility to $6 billion from $2.4 billion, which could boost Turkey’s depleted foreign reserves.
Biden has repeatedly cast competition with China’s rulers and their ilk as the defining battle of the coming years. “I know this is going to sound somewhat prosaic,” Biden said Sunday. “I think we’re in a contest. Not with China per se, but with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.”
But he may find a host of putative allies who don’t see the growing contest in such clear-cut terms. “There is a risk that having this discussion within NATO surfaces very uncomfortable differences between allies on how much China is actually perceived as a threat,” Sarah Raine, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Financial Times.
Beijing, for its part, has long bristled at the pretensions of Western institutions like the G-7 and NATO. According to Chinese state media, senior Chinese official Yang Jiechi told Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a Friday phone call that the international order is based on the United Nations “and not on the false multilateralism of the interests of a ‘small circle’ or ‘clique politics.’”
In an essay for Foreign Affairs, scholars Thomas Pepinsky and Jessica Chen Weiss counseled the Biden administration to invest in an international order “that is flexible enough to accommodate illiberal and liberal countries alike.”
Otherwise, a real clash could be inevitable. “If Chinese leaders conclude that Washington will never allow Beijing to play a leading role on the world stage, it could lead to precisely the kind of all-out confrontation that the United States must strive to avoid as it resumes international leadership,” they wrote.