China an immediate challenge for Joe Biden, who is cornered between EU and Congress

US president-elect faces his biggest foreign policy challenge when he takes office on January 20

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on national security and foreign policy at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S. December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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Managing relations with and countering China’s influence are shaping to be US president-elect Joe Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenge when he takes office on January 20.

Mr Biden, a pragmatist on foreign policy, could be forced to take a more hawkish line in addressing China given its looming investment pact with the EU, pressure from Congress and the Trump legacy the new administration is inheriting.

Perhaps the most unexpected pressure to hit Mr Biden on China is coming from his EU partners, with whom he hoped to restore a transatlantic coalition, but who are now turning to Beijing.

The China pact, expected to be finalised as soon as this Wednesday, concludes six years of talks and will give European companies better access to the Chinese market, protect EU investment and improve competition conditions.

“As things stand now, the political agreement between the EU and China will be sealed on Wednesday,” a senior EU official told Reuters on Monday.

The announcement of the deal could not have come at a worse time for the US president-elect.

Hours later on Monday, Mr Biden was talking of coalitions to counter China.

“As we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies to make common cause with us in defence of our shared interests and values,” he said.

“We are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of our world.

"That’s how we multiply the impact of our efforts and make those efforts more sustainable. That’s the power of smart and effective American leadership."

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, last week called for early consultations with European partners to address concerns about China.

“The Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China's economic practices,” Mr Sullivan tweeted on December 21.

But with a pact in sight this week, the Europeans are setting an independent foreign policy that suits their own interest, Dominic Green, a British historian, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

“The worm in the apple is that the Europeans can act independently, whether as individual nations or in concert through the EU," Mr Green said.

"The more independent they are, the less they want advice from Americans."

The deal presents Mr Biden with an early geopolitical hurdle because it undermines two of his policy goals: countering China, and fixing relations with the EU after a rocky phase with President Donald Trump.

But the deal is also likely to increase pressure from Congress on his administration in how to address China.

Legislators expect Mr Biden's nominees for Cabinet positions "to face an unprecedented barrage of questions about how they plan to handle the Chinese government's yawning ambitions, to the point where one expert called it a 'China litmus test'", Politico reported.

Adding to the pressure are executive orders Mr Trump signed to increase sanctions on China.

Those include sanctions on officials if they interfere in Tibetan Buddhists' selection of the next Dalai Lama, and one to “protect American investors and pension holders from funding Communist Chinese military companies".

Mr Biden could sign his own executive orders reversing those of Mr Trump, but with pressure building from Congress, and China’s growing economic and military rivalry to the US, he could increasingly find his hands tied.

There are also limits to how much the US can push China given the economic co-operation between the two.

The US imports more than 80 per cent of its rare earth materials and minerals from China, Politico  said.

A study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research is anticipating that China will take over from the US as the world's largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast: