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Will the Sudden E.U.-China Deal Damage Relations With Biden?

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BRUSSELS – The European Union has signed a trade deal with China in which it believes engaging in Beijing is the best way to change its behavior and make it a committed stakeholder in the international system. But that was seven years ago.

The deal was tacitly sealed in the last few weeks of last year. By then, China had changed, and so had the world. Transatlantic relations were damaged by President Trump, with new doubts in Europe about American stability and in America about Europe’s ambitions.

The timing – with a newly aggressive China seen as a strategic rival to the United States and just weeks before Joseph R. Biden Jr. becomes president – has opened the European Union to questions and criticism from analysts, and American officials in particular, who may the deal was a diplomatic and political mistake.

It was closed in the middle of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and accepted vague Chinese promises to stop the use of forced labor. There are doubts about Europe’s willingness to heed Mr Biden’s call to work with him on a common strategy towards Beijing. And it has given China an important victory, where the deal was celebrated as a great success for President Xi Jinping ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary and the confirmation of its power in the New World.

“It’s a slap in the face for the transatlantic relationship,” said Philippe Le Corre, a China scholar affiliated with Harvard Kennedy School and Carnegie Endowment – especially after Europeans called the new Biden administration to work in mid-November had a common approach to China with Europe.

“It has already damaged the transatlantic relationship,” Le Corre said before Mr Biden even took office and whether or not it will ultimately be ratified by the European Parliament.

European officials say the timing was not on purpose but came suddenly due to last-minute concessions approved by Mr Xi.

However, there is no doubt that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s agreement has long been a priority, partly because of Germany’s big bet in the Chinese market, partly because she firmly believed that engagement, not confrontation, was the best policy for a decline West in the face of a rapidly growing China.

For Ms. Merkel it was the keystone of her own long march with Beijing and concluded an eventful German Presidency of the European Union with an unexpected success just before the Portuguese took over on January 1st.

The deal will benefit German companies the most, while at the same time setting a marker for European interests that are not identical to American interests – even more so in terms of what everyone expects from the persistent bitterness and distrust that the Trump presidency will generate .

“Trump’s last four years have left a mark, especially in Germany and Merkel,” said Le Corre. “There are great disappointments and some unknowns about Biden, and the 74 million who voted for Trump shows that the situation in the US is far from resolved,” he said. “So at the end of their presidency, the Chinese said,” Get it if you can “.”

Although the text of the deal has not yet been released, there are some concessions to European business that are similar to those that Mr Trump received in his own phase-one deal with China, Le Corre said.

Whether these Chinese commitments will be honored is an open question, as is the question of whether the EU agreement will be ratified by the European Parliament next year amid outrage over human rights violations, including the arrest of dozens of pro-democracy activists on Wednesday in Hong Kong.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said the deal was modest but “less important than timing and politics”. Whether it is ever ratified or not, “the damage to politics and optics has already been done.”

There was only modest criticism within Germany, certainly in comparison to the heated debate about how to deal with coronaviruses and vaccines, she said. However, there are persistent questions as to whether Ms. Merkel’s policy of silent engagement in China will last longer or should be the model for the future. Germany’s stance on Huawei was also softer than that of many European neighbors.

“In Germany and Brussels there is numbness about this being a political victory for China,” said Ms. Oertel. However, she and others ask a more fundamental question: “Whether you can get a deal with China and be sure of it,” she said. “But when you question that, you are questioning the way we and the European Union do business.”

The whole deal could easily have been considered largely out of date, she said, or it could have been negotiated after Mr Biden took office when there would be “more leverage and more transatlantic weight”.

The split reaction in Germany “shows, however, that something has changed in our perception of China, that our risk assessment is far more sober and the hopes for a Chinese transformation are no longer the same as at the beginning of Merkel,” said Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council for Foreign Relations.

At the same time, Germany’s continued drive for such an agreement, despite tensions with Washington and other Europeans who opposed the rush, shows a kind of realism.

“Everything shows how much foreign policy has to take into account the way our economy is built,” she said. Germany’s export-oriented economy and the need for reliable supply chains “limit the scope of foreign policy options vis-à-vis China”.

According to the law, Biden officers are not allowed to negotiate with foreign colleagues before their inauguration. However, Jake Sullivan, who will serve as national security advisor, warned Europeans not to submit a Twitter message on December 22nd. He said the new team would “welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”

This gentle warning was ignored. But just last Sunday, Mr Sullivan was forgiving in a CNN interview. He said Biden’s goal is to have early discussions with European allies “out of mutual respect” in order to work out a common agenda on Chinese trade practices.

“Our goal is to get out there right now and sit down – not just with China, but also work out the economic disparities we have so that we can end the multi-front trade war,” he said.

However, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution said that European officials did harm by describing the deal as part of their pursuit of “strategic autonomy,” a policy promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron that annoys many American politicians.

The paradox of the Biden elections, said François Heisbourg, a French security analyst, is that the European debate about strategic autonomy “no longer depends on the madness of Trump, but on the uncertainties of where the United States is going and the certainty of China. ”

But the way this deal was done, he said, “in the silence of late December and with a minimum of discussion, it looks like it was done smart, sneaky, and it stinks.”

The deal will feed those in Biden Camp who believe Europeans are interested in themselves and cannot be truly reliable partners, Wright said. “Some are skeptical that Europe and Germany in particular will deliver, while others think, ‘Let’s go all-in with them and there’s a good chance they will deliver.’ But that overturns this argument. “

German officials explain that Europe simply struck a long deal when China finally moved on to long-standing issues, Ms Schwarzer said. “That’s right. But it was also a decision to do it now, before Biden walks in, and it is a mystery why this was considered strategic.”

“The transatlantic perspective has not been discussed honestly,” she said, “and for transatlantic relations this will remain a bitter taste for Biden.”

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