To counter China’s belt and road, Biden tries to unite the G7

PLYMOUTH, England – President Biden on Saturday urged European countries and Japan to counter China’s growing economic and security influence by offering developing countries hundreds of billions in funding as an alternative to relying on Beijing for further roads, railways, ports and communication networks.

It was the first time that the richest nations in the world discussed organizing a direct alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the president’s push for loans and investments abroad. Xi Jinping, which has now spread to Africa, Latin America and, hesitantly, Europe itself. But the White House has not cited any financial commitments, and there is deep disagreement between the United States and its allies over how to respond to China’s rise to power.

Mr. Biden has made challenging a rising China and a disruptive Russia the centerpiece of a foreign policy designed to build democracies around the world as a bulwark against the spread of authoritarianism. Beijing, for its part, has pointed to the poor US response to the pandemic and the US policy of division – particularly the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill – as signs that democracy is failing.

In size and ambition, the Chinese development effort far exceeds the Marshall Plan, the United States’ program to rebuild Europe after World War II. At the Group of 7 summit meeting, discussions on Saturday on how to counter it reflected the debate within the West over whether to view China as a partner, competitor, adversary or outright threat to security.

It is far from clear that wealthy democracies will be able to muster a comprehensive response.

The plan outlined by the White House seemed to articulate existing projects in the United States, Europe and Japan, as well as an incentive for private funding. A fact sheet distributed to reporters gave it a name, “Building Better for the World,” with roots in the theme of Mr. Biden’s campaign – abbreviated as B3W, a play about the BRI in China .

It emphasizes the environment, anti-corruption efforts, the free flow of information and financing conditions that would allow developing countries to avoid excessive debt. One of the criticisms of Belt and Road is that it leaves signing nations dependent on China, giving Beijing too much leverage over them.

It was a sign of growing concern over pervasive Chinese surveillance that the British hosts at this year’s G7 rally cut all internet and Wi-Fi connections around the room where the leaders were meeting, leaving them disconnected from the outside world.

Executives widely agree that China is using its investment strategy both to strengthen its state-owned enterprises and to build a network of commercial ports and, through Huawei, communications systems over which it would exercise significant control. But officials leaving the meeting said Germany, Italy and the European Union clearly fear risking their massive trade and investment deals with Beijing or speeding up what is increasingly gaining momentum. of a new cold war.

Mr Biden used the meeting to make his point that the fundamental struggle in the post-pandemic era will be democracies versus autocracies.

The first test may be whether he can persuade the allies to reject participation in any project that relies on forced labor. It is not clear, US officials said, what kind of language about rejecting goods or investments in such projects would be included in the final meeting statement, which will be released on Sunday.

But the meeting comes just a day after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is traveling here with Mr. Biden, told his Chinese counterpart in a phone call that the United States will actively oppose the ” ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing “against Muslims in Xinjiang, far west China, and” the deterioration of democratic standards “in Hong Kong. European leaders have largely avoided this terminology.

Divisions over how to view China help explain why the West has so far failed to muster a coordinated response to Belt-and-Road. A recent Council on Foreign Relations study called Washington’s own reactions a ‘scattershot’ a mix of modest Congressional adjustments to the rules governing the Export-Import Bank to compete with Chinese high-tech lending and efforts to ban Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications champion.

The risk to the US strategy is that dealing with a patchwork of distinct agendas – and a Western emphasis on good environmental and human rights practices – might seem less appealing to developing countries than the all-in-one package. funding and new technologies from Beijing.

“Many BIS countries appreciate the speed at which China can move from planning to construction,” said the council report, written by a bipartisan group of Chinese experts and former US officials.

These countries, he added, also appreciate “China’s willingness to build what host countries want rather than telling them what they should be doing, and the ease of dealing with just one group of builders,” financiers and government officials ”.

Still, Biden feels an opening, as European countries began to understand the risks of reliance on Chinese supply chains and saw China’s reach expand into their own backyards. .

Britain, which once pursued the most China-friendly policy in Europe, has taken a firm stand behind the American hard line, especially with regard to Huawei, which the United States sees as a threat to the United States. security. After trying to accommodate Huawei, he announced, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that he was ripping old Huawei equipment from its networks.

Germany, for which China has become the No.1 market for Volkswagen and BMW, remains committed and deeply resistant to a new cold war. It overturned decisions regarding the use of Huawei and other Chinese-made networking equipment, after threats from Chinese officials to retaliate by banning the sale of German luxury cars in China.

Italy became the first G7 member to join Belt and Road in 2019. It then had to back down, in part, under pressure from NATO allies who feared Italian infrastructure, including the telecommunications network. , are dependent on Chinese technology. .

When China shipped face masks and ventilators to desperate Italy during its Covid outbreak, an Italian official pointedly told fellow Europeans that the country would remember who its friends were after the pandemic.

France has not joined Belt and Road, although it has welcomed Chinese investment in the country and has not banned Huawei from its wireless network. Relations with China have cooled after President Emmanuel Macron criticized Beijing for its lack of transparency on the origins of the coronavirus.

“America would be well served if the European Union got its act together and defined a coherent Chinese strategy,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States. “Its interests are not well served if there is a German China strategy, a French China strategy, and a British China strategy.”

It’s easier said than done. Britain moved closer to the United States under pressure from former President Donald J. Trump – less because it changed its mind about strategy or the security risks posed by China, than because, in the aftermath of Brexit, it feared being isolated from its most important ally. .

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who strongly believes in engagement with China, will step down in a few months. But Germany’s policy may not change much, especially if her successor as head of the Christian Democratic Party, Armin Laschet, replaces her in the chancellery. He is considered to be in sync with Ms Merkel.

France is another story. Mr Macron faces a formidable challenge from the populist right in next year’s elections. Right-wing leader Marine LePen has pledged to stand up to China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Every time you have one of these meetings you are going to see fluidity in one country or the other,” said Simon Fraser, a former senior official at the British Foreign Office. But, he added, “there is a lack of cohesion on the European side which must be remedied”.

Italy is a good example of how China has tried to strengthen its influence in Europe. Since joining Belt and Road, Rome has signed nearly two dozen agreements with Beijing, ranging from tax regulations to sanitary requirements on pork exports. But Italy has also vetoed a 5G deal between Huawei and one of its telecommunications companies.

The centerpiece of Chinese investment in Europe is a rail network that would link its factories in the Pacific to London – a project Chinese Premier Li Keqiang once described as an express route to Europe. Italy, which has a terminus on the road, welcomes investment as a tonic for its struggling economy.

But Britain’s relations with China are completely frozen. The government has imposed sanctions on China’s treatment of its Uyghur population and has offered residency and a path to citizenship for more than 300,000 British passport holders abroad in Hong Kong, after China imposed a draconian national security law in the former British colony.

China’s human rights record hardens European attitudes in all areas, analysts say. The European Parliament refused to ratify a landmark investment treaty, backed by Germany, due to China’s backlash to sanctions over its treatment of Uyghurs. China has sanctioned 10 politicians from the European Union.

There is also evidence that Mr Biden acknowledges that his aggressive language about China – as a great adversary in a fateful struggle between democracies and autocracies – is baffling to many Europeans. He largely shunned this framing in the days leading up to his European tour, speaking more generally of 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 come together, moderating the more extreme aspects of the confrontation versus conciliation in each other’s approaches.

“America becomes more realistic about China from the hard line, while Europe becomes more realistic from the soft line,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a think tank in London.

About Norma Wade

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