Playing to Europe, Biden’s “Thaw” is Emboldening the CCP

Playing to Europe, Biden’s “Thaw” is Emboldening the CCP

With a U.S. administration intent on engagement for engagement’s sake, China has carte blanche to do what it likes when it likes.


In recent months, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity, with American, European, and Chinese diplomats jetting from one capital city to another. For the Europeans, these trips are part of a long-term strategy to hedge their bets. For the United States, the overtures have been an attempt to thaw relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the meantime, President Xi Jinping and his Politburo have toned down their inner “wolf warrior” to capitalize on European equivocations and U.S. weakness to push the “rules-based international order” to their advantage. 

At its summit in June, the European Council reiterated its view that the PRC is “simultaneously a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival.” It and Europe have “shared interests … anchored in a respect for the rules-based international order,” and Europe will “continue to engage with China” to “tackle global challenges.” Yet many of the challenges that today menace the EU have their origins in the foreign policy ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party. The international order the CCP aspires to establish is opposed to the Westphalian nation-state system that emerged from Europe in the seventeenth century. Instead, Beijing envisions a Chinese civilization-state at the center of the political universe, upheld by a ruthlessly pragmatic Marxist-Leninist modus operandi.


European leaders appear little perturbed. Germany’s inaugural National Security Strategy acknowledged that “China is trying in various ways to remold the existing rules-based international order.” Still, it continues, the PRC is “a partner without whom many global challenges…cannot be solved.” Beyond the veneer of its more bellicose rhetoric, the new German China strategy asserts much the same. When Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Premier Li Qiang in June, he avoided any mention of Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or economic de-risking. At the request of Beijing, he also avoided the press.

French president Emmanuel Macron has been more overt. Macron has long held that any EU policy on China should not reflect Washington’s position. Between photo ops in Beijing in April, he implored Xi to “play a major role” in Ukraine by finding a “pathway to peace.” At the June summit of his pet project, the New Global Financing Initiative, he extended a coveted speaking slot to Li. “China will unequivocally reject trade protectionism and all forms of decoupling and severing of supply chains,” the premier warned. Macron has since suggested that he should attend the upcoming BRICS summit in August. It would come as little surprise if he advocates for China’s inclusion in the G7 in the future.

The French and German position appears to be a feature rather than a bug in Europe’s approach to China. EU leaders increasingly speak of a “multipolar world” where China plays a prominent role. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—currently besieged by the man Xi once called his “best, most intimate friend”—has even suggested that his country could be a “bridge to Europe” for Chinese businesses. 

Outside of Europe, hedging has also become the path of least resistance. At a recent left-wing Sao Paulo Forum meeting, South American leaders applauded Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy and a China policy independent of Washington. Similar echoes can be heard from Africa to Southeast Asia, where China has been deploying its highest officials for the last two decades to solidify its influence.

China has aimed to portray itself as a more compatible partner, one that will not meddle in a country’s internal affairs while championing the interests of the Global South on the world stage—a convenient, if relativist, strategy that resonates in Egypt, South Africa, Myanmar, and Pakistan, among others. Despite the Biden administration’s assurances that American leadership is back and stronger than ever, policy failures in the Middle East and misguided agendas elsewhere have left the United States increasingly isolated, with key partners inching closer to Beijing. Exacerbating its loss of influence, Washington, like Europe, has been attempting to thread the Beijing needle—despite bipartisan hawkishness on Capitol Hill

During her trip to Beijing earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen repeated the administration’s new talking point: U.S.-China relations need to be “on a better track” that maintains “open and honest lines of communication.” “The world is big enough for both of our countries to thrive,” Yellen announced. What this means is unclear. But what is clear is that the PRC has little interest in honest dialogue or stabilization with the United States.

Consider what happened in June when Blinken traveled to Beijing. After it had refused a one-on-one with Xi until the last day of the visit, the CCP staged the encounter to depict the president as if he were holding court, with Blinken as a submissive petitioner. The trip's primary objective—to re-establish military-to-military communications—was, for the United States, a failure. Yet, for the CCP, it was a policy and public relations win. As long as Beijing delays the renewal of the bilateral military exchanges, it may draw more concessions from Washington. In the meantime, Xi’s feigned concern for fentanyl outflows into the United States and other policy issues came as wittingly crafted signs of “progress.”

Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, also supports engagement with China on environmental issues though this has not won him any goodwill in Beijing. Kerry returned from China last week without winning any further carbon reduction commitments from Xi. China is the world’s leading polluter, responsible for over a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and more than half of its coal production. Last year, it sanctioned domestic coal production equal to two new large coal power plants per week. Consequently, Xi and his central committee have little interest in genuine climate talks. What they are interested in, however, is exploiting Biden’s green agenda to weaken U.S. industry and undercut national security. 

No doubt, planting a de-escalation ladder between the superpowers is a worthy aim. Yet as the New York Times noted, Biden “is betting that high-level dialogue can itself act as a ballast in a relationship.” Yet, that bet and the administration’s detente has only emboldened the PRC. Xi has made it clear he has no desire to de-escalate—or even meet Biden halfway in establishing a viable, working relationship. In the last six months alone, China has violated U.S. airspace, increased patrols and unsafe maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, and placed export restrictions on minerals critical to the United States and allied defense production. While Washington continues to call for a “fair set of rules,” Beijing plays its own game, knowing that—beyond vacuous calls for more dialogue—it will be met with no meaningful response. Recent revelations that the CCP hacked multiple U.S. government agencies suggest that the provocations will not abate.

With Europe wavering, U.S. partners edging ever closer to Beijing, and a U.S. administration intent on engagement for engagement’s sake, China has carte blanche to do what it likes when it likes. Steadily, Xi is reshaping the rules-based international order with impunity. If neither Europe nor America resist, this diplomatic activity could herald China’s “new world order” sooner than expected.

Amy K. Mitchell is a founding partner at Kilo Alpha Strategies. She brings extensive national security and defense experience to the firm, having advised three Secretaries of Defense and several large defense contractors. Her unique understanding of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests provides companies with high-level insights and counsel. Ms. Mitchell is currently a Visiting Fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at New Lines Institute, serves on the advisory board of the Vandenberg Coalition and is a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition Foreign Policy Study Group.

Aleksandra Gadzala Tirziu is the founder of the geopolitical risk and strategic communications firm Magpie Advisory. She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, Contributing Editor with the New York Sun, and serves on the advisory board of the Vandenberg Coalition. She holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Oxford.

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