A Golden Opportunity for Better International Relations


March 2021

China Today Magazine



The Biden administration’s arrival, after years of turbulent, impulsive and damaging policies pursued by the Trump administration, was met with new hopes and optimism around the world. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said, “This new dawn in America is the moment we've been waiting for so long. Once again, after four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House.” In Beijing as well, the spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomed the new President saying, “With cooperation from both sides, the better angels in China-US relations will beat the evil forces.”

Such expressions of optimism were soon rewarded as Mr. Biden--within hours of becoming president--committed the United States to rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord, both major priorities of Europe and China.

The world is a complicated place but there can be little doubt that cooperation and engagement between Europe, China and America is essential to solving the planet's problems. As prime minister, I led Ireland's largest ever trade delegation to China in 2005, and I have returned many times since to attend environmental and business forums involving senior members of the Chinese leadership. And every Irish leader is close to the United States with so many citizens of Ireland having emigrated there in the 19th century that all of us have family connections in America. In 2008, I was honoured to be asked to address a Joint Meeting of the US Congress where I told the legislators that “To be an Irishman among Americans is to be at home.” Beyond my personal connections to both superpowers, the InterAction Council of former world leaders (of which I am co-chair) has also consistently urged European-American-Chinese dialogue and cooperation to solve the world's problems. So, is this possible as we contemplate the arrival of a new US administration?

Europe and China's initial embrace of the Biden administration carries an urgency because there has been no shortage of irritants between Beijing, Brussels and Washington in the recent past. Trump certainly alienated many of America’s traditional allies: The tariffs imposed by the Trump administration not only damaged the spirit of free and open trade, but also harmed American businesses and its economic growth. Beyond the trade war launched by Trump against Europe and China, the Trump administration further antagonized Beijing by tightening F-1 student and H-1B skilled worker visas under the guise of keeping out Chinese spies.

International relations are not just about treaties, sanctions, and deals; they are also about gestures and relationships. The most damaging aspect of Trump’s handling of China was that it combined an inconsistent, incoherent, and disjointed strategy of dealing with China’s growing power and influence with a complete absence of awareness or understanding about how to engage President Xi. Trump’s approach towards China was noisy outside but empty inside.

Europe, in contrast, has always favoured engagement with China over confrontation. After seven years of negotiation, for example, the European Union and China have recently announced the signing of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment that gives European companies greater access and better legal safeguards in their direct investments in mainland China. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and President Xi Jinping of China jointly appeared on a video link to announce the agreement on December 30, 2020.

Personal relationships matter, both in substance and in appearance, especially in the context of Asian history and diplomacy. With China’s apparent willingness to look favourably on Washington, will the Biden administration follow Europe’s lead in accepting China as a partner on many files rather than as a threat on all files?

A key measure of success for President Biden’s potential engagement with China will necessarily depend on his relationship with President Xi and senior Chinese leadership, despite current challenges stemming from COVID-19, for high-level diplomacy. Biden must seize the opportunity to proactively engage with President Xi and China’s political elites, with a coherent and nuanced understanding about Chinese priorities in international affairs.

As President Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” It is only fitting that the new president’s inauguration speech focused on unity because it is something that the US desperately needs. Today, the United States is deeply divided, not just on racial differences but in terms of ideologies and partisanship, economic inequalities, and fundamental visions about the role of the United States in the world. The spirit of innovation, partnership, and cutting-edge solutions that once guided US foreign policy has given way to passive, confused, ad-hoc policies on a range of complex challenges facing the international community.

Sino-American relations always had ebbs and flows, at times with doses of suspicion, hostility and anxiety, but the stakes are much higher today, both for Washington and Beijing, because the problems confronting us are much greater. From a global pandemic, to growing tides of protectionism, to ageing populations and climate change, both superpowers along with Europe must find a way to carefully build on each other’s strengths rather than assigning blame. Finding common ground, as Europe has done, should be a top priority for both Washington and Beijing, because neither can afford the cost of prolonged battle against each other.

There are three key priorities for the Biden administration as it looks to repair and renew the US relationship with China.

First, President Biden needs a clear vision for the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, one based on a careful and balanced assessment of key American priorities. In the recent past, Chinese influence has been actively expanding in the region. Beijing has signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with fourteen other countries in Asia, for example, and it is now investing heavily in its military capabilities. From dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to American military engagements in the Pacific, Washington can no longer afford to pursue hostile policies towards Beijing and take a bystander’s approach towards what is happening in the South China Sea, or the Korean peninsula, or China’s commercial expansion in Asia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Beijing’s greater vision for the world, will continue to evolve and move forward, regardless of the person in charge at the White House. Instead of feeling threatened by China, Washington needs its own vision and strategy for the next century.

Second, the Biden administration needs to focus on renewing partnerships and alliances in the Asia-Pacific region to restore geostrategic balance. The Northeast Asia region has the highest concentration of military capabilities in the world and the United States has spent billions of dollars throughout its history to promote peace and stability in the region in the past few decades. This is why Trump’s efforts to cut down on American defence spending in South Korea caused a great deal of concern from its traditional ally. The United States must actively engage with its allies like South Korea and Japan, two critical partner nations for NATO, and renew its commitment towards peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and use multilateralism as a channel for promoting American values and interests.

Third, Washington needs to increase its investment in improving American competitiveness. In today’s world, where artificial intelligence revolution and cyberspace will dictate our future, the United States needs a long-term strategy in collaboration with its private sector, to properly manage its technological competition vis-à-vis China. Such investment should entail a greater focus on research and development funding, an institutional culture that rewards digital innovation and attracting the brightest human capital that understands its allies and adversaries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Reversing the damage done by the Trump administration will not be easy. It will take time, patience and persistence. But the opportunity for a new engagement strategy between Europe, China and the United States is a precious one, which President Biden and his team should nurture and cultivate.

Bertie Ahern is the Co-chair of the InterAction Council and former Prime Minister of Ireland.