The US returns to lead democratic countries under Biden while China could face growing pressure

A week ago, several international coalitions issued statements to criticize China’s human rights records and the growing threat that Beijing is posing to regional security. Experts think as more countries begin to view China as a threat, the trend could help some issues that used to be deemed sensitive to get more attention.

Following US President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe, G7, NATO and the US-EU summit all focused on China in their communique. While the G7 highlighted human rights violations in China, the coalition and the US-EU Summit both mentioned the situation across the Taiwan Strait for the first time, emphasizing the importance to maintain peace and stability in the region.

“For Taiwan, the G7 and US-EU Summit statements are an incredible success because they demonstrate rising international support for maintaining the peaceful status quo and ensuring Taiwan’s sovereignty,” said Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation.

“For China, it is past time to do some self-reflection to recognize that coercive behavior against Taiwan, throughout the Indo-Pacific, and globally is backfiring. What Beijing should take away is that some recalibration is in order, but I seriously doubt under Xi that this will be the conclusion,” he added.

On the other hand, NATO also branded China as a security risk for the first time. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, said Europe and North American must stand up against authoritarian regimes like Russia and China.

However, some experts don’t think the series of criticisms from democratic alliances will let China reflect on the effect of its own foreign policy. Rather, Beijing will likely view this as the result of US persecution.

“There is a core group of countries that see China as a key actor on a threat scale and that is necessarily going to result in greater coordination and greater hedging and balancing on the part of smaller states,” said Drew Thompson, a former US Defense Department official overseeing China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

“This is going to present some challenges for China particularly because China fails to recognize how much of their own policies are driving this process. Until they are prepared to stop threatening foreign partners, as they seem to enjoy doing, this trend is going to continue,” he added.

More emphasis on Taiwan

As for G7 and US-EU Summit’s decision to mention Taiwan in their statements for the first time, other experts think this is an important step in democratic countries’ decision-making process and it could be beneficial to Taiwan. Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, said the move may have caught officials in Beijing slightly off guard.

“They may be surprised by just how effective the Biden administration has been at getting Taiwan inserted into the language of all of these international collective organizations,” he said.

“I think it represents the fact that Taiwan is a US priority in these forums. Europe is a long way from Taiwan Strait so for the G7 and the EU-US Summit to include a reference of Taiwan Strait suggests not only the US is pushing it, but the other countries involved in these organizations are willing to accede to that request,” Templeman added.

However, Kyoto News in Japan reported last week that there were divided opinions about whether the G7 communique should highlight issues related to Taiwan or not. According to the report, France and Germany argued that since the statement from the G7 Foreign Minister’s meeting already highlighted issues related to Taiwan, so the G7 communique didn’t need to mention Taiwan again.

However, Japan and the US both think issues related to Taiwan directly affect their security, so they argued that if the G7 communique didn’t mention Taiwan, it could send the wrong signal that global leaders didn’t think there is a problem with the situation across the Taiwan Strait.

The report said Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged Germany to be on the same page with the US and Japan during the bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the end, French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel accepted the arguments presented by the US and Japan and decided to mention Taiwan in the communique.

Drew Thompson said Germany doesn’t feel the same military and security threat that Japan sees simply because of its proximity to China and Taiwan. He said Japan is acutely aware of China’s military posturing and it’s a show of force.

“Europe has the luxury of distance and they can choose to determine that Taiwan’s security is not its security,” Thompson said. “The gap [on issues related to Taiwan] is going to remain. However, I think there will be more willingness from more liberal politicians to see China as an unreliable economic as well as security partner, which leaves Germany vulnerable to economic coercion.”

Templeman points out that while there are still gaps in different countries’ understanding, the fact that they all agree to mention Taiwan in the communique suggests “good diplomatic work on the part of the US and Japan.”

“All of these things bode well for the ability to build a broad coalition that can at least signal to China that they are running into some real opposition if they continue down the road that they are on,” he said.

How Biden revives the democratic alliance

The trip to Europe was Biden’s first overseas tour since he became US President in January and apart from his announcement that “the US is Back,” member states of these international alliances also viewed the change of US foreign policy positively.

Thompson said since Biden became US President, the US has re-emerged as a global leader as it has convening and coalescing power and influence. “That was largely lost under Trump, partly because he had great disdain for it and partly because he didn’t understand the value of that ability to form global coalitions to confront global challenges,” he said. “We are certainly seeing a return on the part of the US.”

Templeman said following four years under Donald Trump, the bar has become so low in foreign policy that Biden doesn’t have to do a whole lot except make all the right gestures and say the right words.

However, he thinks the tricky thing for the US and its democratic partners is how to execute the broader strategy like the infrastructure project that G7 revealed last week. Templeman said while the timing to unveil the plan is good, all sides are waiting to see whether the plan can be executed or not.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.