Of all the differences between the United States and its allies in Europe, the way it deals with China is the most intractable.

Fresh out of the G-7 love-in in Britain, President Biden is in Brussels this week to meet with NATO and European Union leaders. There will no doubt be warmer words of transatlantic harmony on topics like Covid-19, climate change and the importance of democracy.

Beneath the surface, points of disagreement remain. On long-standing issues such as European military spending, digital taxes, steel tariffs and subsidies for Boeing and Airbus,

diplomacy can probably bring progress. Where he will struggle to make significant progress is in reconciling different attitudes towards China.

The weekend’s G-7 communiqué was mainly hawkish on China, but the accompanying commentary underscored the balance the EU must strike. European leaders such as Frenchman Emmanuel Macron and Italian Mario Draghi have stressed the need to cooperate with Beijing.

Attitudes in Brussels towards the Asian nation hardened, as in Washington. In 2019, the EU took a big step forward and called China a “systemic rival”. It has since established powers to screen foreign investment and proposed new rules to block takeovers by government-subsidized companies. Central and Eastern European countries have also cooled off on Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.

The EU is a trading bloc, however, not a political superpower. He is worried about market access and China’s obligation to abide by multilateral rules – ambitions that have led him to rush on a China-EU investment treaty earlier in 2021. He s less worried about Beijing’s growing geopolitical weight.

Policy shifts between recent US presidents, culminating in the Trump years, have also pushed European leaders to seek “strategic autonomy,” and that is not expected to change. Although they have a lot in common with Mr Biden, the new president has continued to make unilateral decisions with little consultation with the EU, including withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and supporting patent waivers for vaccines. Covid-19.

A recent poll found that a fifth of Europeans saw the United States as an ally, while only 5% said the same about China. However, many people saw the two nations as necessary partners. Standing by the side of the United States, but not provoking China is a delicate line, especially as Beijing becomes more daring and sees itself as America’s equal.

One example is Europe’s stance on the Uyghur minority group. Washington’s language in the G-7 statement on the alleged abuses has been toned down by the Europeans. Earlier in 2021, the EU’s decision to join its allies in sanctioning China led Beijing to impose retaliatory sanctions on EU officials and the European Parliament to freeze the EU-investment treaty. China.

The Huawei case is also booming. U.S. pressure for allies to ban Chinese technology giant 5G networking equipment has met a predictably nuanced European response. The EU has developed general 5G cybersecurity guidelines that have provided tools for member states to block Huawei, but has not given the company a name or made it mandatory. National actions have been mixed. Sweden banned Huawei, prompting threats of retaliation and, bizarrely, lobbying from local rival Ericsson,

who has a big Chinese operation, to reverse the decision. At the other extreme, Germany is still looking for what to do.

When put in a corner, European nations will almost certainly support the United States, but they will do everything possible to avoid taking sides. Perhaps the big question for transatlantic relations is how far Washington pushes them.

Write to Rochelle Toplensky at [email protected]

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