After first Europe trip, Biden falls short of to-do list

From last weekend to this week, U.S. President Joe Biden had his first foreign travel as U.S. president to Europe with clear goals: "rally the world's democracies," as he wrote in The Washington Post.

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At the summits of the Group of Seven (G7) and NATO and during talks with European Union (EU) leaders, Biden wanted to rebuild the transatlantic relations damaged in the past four years, and tried to lead the alliance to counter China and Russia.

Through the meeting with his Russian counterpart, Biden wanted a "stable and predictable relationship where we can work with Russia on issues like strategic stability and arms control."

To some extent, Biden has eased the tensions across the Atlantic Ocean. However, he has also fallen short of his to-do list in gathering allies against China.

Europe's suspicions

"America is back!" From his first stop in Britain for the G7 summit to NATO and U.S.-EU summits in Brussels, Biden repeated this slogan several times in his trip.

After he took office, Biden kept trying to differentiate his administration from the past, in a bid to display a new American image to its allies and the world. During the U.S.-EU summit, Biden told European Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that "I have a very different view than my predecessor did."

Donald Trump, his predecessor, brought great shock to Europe in the past tumultuous four years. America's transatlantic allies suffered much from punitive high tariffs imposed by Washington on wines, steel, and aluminum products, and their cars exported to the United States were tagged as "threat to the U.S. national security."

This time around, U.S. and alliance leaders met face-to-face with relaxed smiles, a scene absent for years -- don't forget that Trump refused to shake hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her White House visit in 2017.

Indeed, Biden's Europe trip has, to some extent, mended the broken ties with its allies. They issued a joint statement of the G7 summit, agreed to the NATO 2030 Agenda to reform the military bloc, and agreed to suspend the trade dispute over aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus.

But many issues remain unsolved. The suspension of Boeing/Airbus subsidy is valid only for five years. Unsolved rows include the tariffs on steel and aluminum. And on high-tech issues, Washington and Brussels dispute with each other in data protection and digital trade.

Some European experts and politicians believed that after the past four years of tensions across the Atlantic, and after they saw the chaos on Capitol Hill early this year, Trumpism and its consequences should not be underestimated.

"America first" came back again when Washington restricted vaccine export earlier this year when the whole world was badly in need of it. Even though Biden promised that the United States will donate 500 million doses of vaccines, he was criticized by some European experts for implementing "vaccine diplomacy."

America's return came as the EU has become more determined to play a more important role on the world stage. Partly shocked by Trump's attempt to withdraw the defense umbrella from Europe, and partly in a bid to adapt to a changing world balance of power, the 27-state bloc wants to strengthen defense and strategic autonomy, in a bid to take control of one's own destiny.

"In recent years, with the rise of unilateralism and protectionism in the United States, the demand for strategic autonomy was seen as a natural and necessary option (for the EU)," Xulio Rios, director of the Madrid-based Observatory of Chinese Politics, said in an interview with Xinhua.

"Coming out of the shadows of the United States," wrote the Belgian newspaper l'echo on Monday.

"What is important is that Europe defines its own priorities. Europe must come out of the shadow of the United States," the newspaper quoted Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo as saying.

Botched "united front"

China was one of the major topics of the three summits between Biden and leaders of the western alliance. The United States hoped to rally its partners to deal with China, under the pretext of promoting democracy and rules-based order.

In the G7 summit communique, the seven industrialized countries criticized China on a series of domestic and foreign issues. In the NATO summit communique, China was labeled as presenting a "systemic challenge" and China will be mentioned in the military alliance's latest strategic concept. In the EU-U.S. joint statement, China again was a target for criticism.

However, many European leaders did not see eye to eye with each other. French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that the G7 may have its differences with China over issues such as "forced labor" and human rights, but it is not a club that is hostile to the Asian economic powerhouse.

"China is an economic rival from whom we expect the full respect of (international trade) rules," Macron told a news conference at the end of the G7 summit.

After the NATO summit, Merkel said NATO's decision to name China as a systemic challenge "shouldn't be overstated," because China, like Russia, is also a partner in some areas.

German newspaper Die Zeit wrote a commentary, arguing that NATO should not pay too much attention to China.

"Is the conflict with China a dispute within the existing international system - or is it a system conflict between alternative models? The Europeans and the Americans disagree on this. The former wants to involve China, the latter rely on confrontation. NATO has now joined in," wrote the commentary.

The divergence between the United States and Europe is more than obvious when comparing the communiques released by the White House and the G7 summit -- the former baselessly quoted Xinjiang as an example for "forced labor," while the latter listed no place for this issue, nor did it inappropriately use any word like "genocide" -- which indicates the G7's intention to avoid using slanderous or untrue statements.

In Geneva, Biden held a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two presidents only agreed to begin a dialogue on nuclear arms control and send ambassadors back to each other's capitals.

However, Biden and Putin remained divided on issues such as cybersecurity, the Kremlin dissident Alexei Navalny and Ukraine. Unlike the Trump-Putin Helsinki meeting in 2018, the two leaders held press conferences, separately.

As widely predicted, the Biden-Putin summit produced limited results, including a joint statement on strategic stability. Experts regarded the meeting as an effort to prevent the confrontation from further escalation.


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