On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the European Union to avoid taking sides in the new U.S.-China Cold War. That perspective is Merkel’s right as the democratic leader of Europe’s largest economy. But considering the immense threat China poses to the U.S.-led international order, it is President Biden’s right and responsibility to impose a price on EU governments which choose Chinese gold over critical American interests.
There is a lot more at stake here than Merkel’s rhetoric. Front and center is a new EU-China trade deal that EU leaders agreed to in late December. That agreement will consolidate China’s economic leverage over Europe and undermine Biden’s stated interest in building an alliance of democracies to confront China’s aggressive international policies. China recognizes as much and is celebrating.
Fortunately, Biden has options for coping with Merkel’s unfortunate choice. The Chancellor’s trade agreement still needs ratification from the EU parliament. Thanks to the courageous leadership of parliamentarians such as Raphael Glucksmann, a rising number there are resisting ratification.
The parliamentarians’ specific concern is the trade deal’s exclusion of an explicit Chinese government commitment to enforce international standards against forced labor. New reporting on China’s treatment of its Uighur citizens proves that Beijing is using hundreds of thousands of innocent people for forced labor each year. In turn, EU parliamentarians are demanding that new, enforceable forced labor restrictions be attached to the deal.
This has Merkel concerned. The chancellor knows that Xi Jinping sees the Uighurs only as serfs to be stripped of their cultural identity and made drones for his industrial policy. She knows that there’s no way Xi is going to give enough ground to win the favor of Glucksmann and company. (One might expect a 21st century German chancellor to hold genocidal policies in greater contempt, but here we are.)
Merkel has allowed Xi to stand at the intersection between her own mercantilism and French President Emanuel Macron’s misguided strategic separation from the U.S. (Macron has at least authorized his military to show a greater presence in the South China Sea).
So, what should Biden do?
As a first step, he should rule out any agreement with the EU on its priority pursuit of new digital regulations. Biden should say that as long as the China trade deal is on the table, digital governance cooperation is off.
He should also take advantage of what is happening in the European parliament. Merkel showed contempt for Biden by ignoring a tweet from his national security adviser and rushing to agree the trade deal before the president entered office. Biden should, albeit diplomatically, show the same contempt for Merkel’s China policy by inviting Glucksmann and a number of his like-minded colleagues to Washington for public consultations.
Biden should direct U.S. embassies in Europe to offer whatever support these parliamentarians might seek or benefit from. He should also continue to declassify U.S. intelligence reporting on what is actually happening to the Uighurs and ensure that European media outlets receive any evidence that EU officials have been bribed by Chinese officials for their support.
If all of these efforts fail, Biden should introduce tariffs on European automobile exports (a policy that will bear primary impact on Germany). The EU must know it cannot kowtow to China without losing American friends.
None of these steps is at all preferable. It would be far better for both the EU and the U.S. were Merkel to answer Biden’s call for a new collaborative effort to resist China’s most malevolent activities. Unfortunately, the Chancellor is clearly not interested. Until she leaves office later this year, Biden must outmaneuver her.