The Road to a Successful China Policy Runs Through Europe


President-elect Joe Biden and his administration have an unlikely path to course-correct Sino-American relations: locking arms with Europe. A renewed collaboration with European allies can help the United States compete more effectively with China and better address the growing economic and security challenges that it poses.

The United States and Europe share strong mutual interests on many of the complex issues defining the broader China challenge: global health, climate change, technology, human rights, democracy, and trade.



Together, the United States and the European Union compose 42.1 percent of global GDP according to World Bank data, while China only makes up 16.3 percent. The European Union is China’s largest aggregate trade partner while the United States is China’s largest bilateral trade partner. A revived partnership between the United States and Europe can lead to greater coordinated leverage that will be needed to push back against the negative aspects of China’s continued rise.

If the next administration is to succeed in recalibrating its relationship with Beijing, U.S. officials will have to work quickly to build a unified coalition of partners and allies to blunt the challenges of China’s ascendance. The success of such an effort will depend upon whether the United States can convince Europe that Washington will uphold its end of the bargain. And the United States will need to work hard to repair relations with its transatlantic partners and coordinate its policy on China at a scale that eclipses anything seen over the last four years.

As the Center for American Progress recently noted in a comprehensive new report, in its first 100 days the next administration should build a strong coalition with European partners on China policy focused around climate change, technology policy, human rights and democracy issues, and trade. Washington and Brussels can work towards pushing Beijing to stick to its climate commitments while raising the bar for future progress. Beijing has also made it clear that it seeks to dominate the technology arena. A reinvigorated transatlantic partnership can work towards technology standards based on common liberal values. From Hong Kong to Xinjiang, Beijing continues to disregard democratic norms and human rights. The United States and the European Union share deep historical values on these issues and can join forces to push China to comply with international norms. Finally, Beijing continues to use its economic largess as a tool of coercion. The United States (China’s largest bilateral trade partner) and the European Union (collectively China’s largest trading partner) both face Beijing’s state-directed distortionary economic practices, such as restricting domestic market access. Addressing these challenges posed by China’s domestic and international aspirations will require the United States and Europe to work in tandem.

European Views on China

European perspectives towards China are rapidly changing. The European Commission last year labeled China a “systemic rival” for the first time. European views on China have only become more critical in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. China’s haphazard disinformation campaign about the origins of COVID-19 and criticism of the European response sparked anger across Europe. A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations after the pandemic outbreak shows perceptions of China are increasingly negative across Europe. Recent Pew Research Center surveys in nine European countries reveal a sharp increase in negative views of China and President Xi Jinping. Even with current tensions in transatlantic relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his E.U. counterpart, Josep Borrell, agreed to launch a new bilateral dialogue on China on Oct. 23.

The European Union is realizing it should change course. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the dangers of overreliance on Beijing as China continues its coercive and temperamental rise. These shifts are creating new opportunities for U.S.-European cooperation on policy toward China. While consensus on China within the European Union continues to evolve, the next administration needs to be prepared to engage on key topics in order to help forge a more effective approach towards China.

Roadmap for Transatlantic Cooperation on China

The administration can start to build a coalition on China policy within its first 100 days. A high-level U.S. delegation should travel to Europe as part of a comprehensive review of its strategy towards Beijing. This listening tour will be an important predicate to restoring trust with our transatlantic partners. Biden’s first overseas trip as president should be to Europe to signal the importance of democratic allies and values.

Climate Change

On climate change, the next administration should take immediate steps to show European partners that the United States is recommitted to combating climate change, and signal to Beijing that the United States and European Union will look for immediate and ambitious action from China to match its climate promises. The United States should not only rejoin the Paris climate agreement, but also coordinate with European partners on carbon emissions-reduction measures, such as carbon border adjustment mechanisms. In concert with ambitious domestic climate policies within the United States, these coordinated initiatives can push China to move more quickly towards lowering emissions.

Beijing’s ability and willingness to meet ambitious climate targets remains an open question. Xi announced at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2020 that China would aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. While an encouraging sign, it is unclear how China plans to achieve this target. Current climate policy and recent domestic actions suggest China isn’t making the shift towards lower emissions for the foreseeable future. China is continuing to build new coal plants at an alarming rate and relying heavily on the fossil fuel industry for its economic recovery post-pandemic. Without action in the near term, it is unclear if and how China will keep its climate promises.

In contrast, with its European Green Deal, the European Union has defined the immediate actions it will take to lower emissions. The European Union is firmly committed to keeping the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as urgently laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This makes the European Union an ideal partner, and coordinating on carbon border adjustment mechanisms is a major opportunity. These carbon border adjustment mechanisms would impose costs across high-emission sectors and allow the United States and European Union to create real incentives for China — and other high emitters — to rapidly reduce emissions.

Technology Policy

European nations also have a crucial role to play on tech issues. The European Union has already demonstrated leadership on technology governance, and the United States is beginning to follow. Together, the United States and the European Union can collaborate on common technology governance standards, offering a democratic alternative to China’s digital authoritarianism. To do so, the administration should develop a new digital technology strategy within its first 100 days. This strategy should be coordinated with allies and partners like the European Union to promote liberal governance values, push back against increasing disinformation, and combat digital authoritarianism.

The next administration should also convene an international technology forum for like-minded democracies to develop common approaches to challenges posed by emerging technologies. Beijing will no doubt be hostile to a united democratic approach to technology governance. For example, the Chinese ambassador to Germany recently threatened that “the Chinese government will not stand idly by” if Germany bans Huawei 5G telecoms equipment. But that makes it even more important that the United States and the European Union coordinate on tech together.

Human Rights and Democratic Values

Another area in which the United States and Europe can exert pressure on China is human rights — in particular, holding China accountable for abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Europe is already toughening its stance on China’s human rights violations. European leaders pressed Xi on these issues during the E.U.-Chinese virtual summit in September, expressing grave concerns over the treatment of minorities and human rights advocates in a conversation that was reportedly “quite intense.” European Council President Charles Michel stated, “We reiterated our concerns over China’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists.” The European Union also requested that China allow independent observers to visit the Xinjiang region to investigate internment camps. During the meeting, European leaders raised concerns with Xi about Hong Kong’s new national security law, which effectively severed China’s agreement to abide by the “One Country Two Systems” governance structure. The United States should join Europe in demanding better. The U.S. Congress has already worked to highlight China’s abuses. The United States should push the European Union further to turn recent soft rhetoric into broader collaborative action.

The next administration can take immediate steps to demonstrate support for democratic norms and aid victims of China’s egregious human rights violations. Possible actions include granting temporary protected status and special immigration status to the people of Hong Kong and announcing new U.S. sanctions against individuals and entities connected to the repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The administration should also invite Uighur activists to the White House to bring greater attention to the atrocities that Beijing is carrying out in Xinjiang.


On trade, the United States should shift away from the transactional trade policy of the last four years to focus on addressing China’s most egregious economic and trade behavior jointly with Europe. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has said, “Europe and U.S. alike have expectations towards China: fair conditions for trade and investment, observance of international treaties and obligations.” To implement this shift, the next administration on day one should announce an end to President Trump’s misguided trade war with the European Union. While all disputes will not be settled within 100 days, a productive dialogue to lower trade barriers is a key step in repairing transatlantic relations. Reducing trade tensions will create space for Washington and Brussels to coordinate on other issues related to China. Further, the next administration should take collective action at the World Trade Organization by filing a nullification and impairment case against Beijing. These actions will set the stage to develop a more multilateral trade approach with buy-in from Europe on China.

Looking Ahead

Policymakers in European capitals are watching the United States to gauge opportunities to join forces. The Biden administration must get that outreach right in order to course-correct a failed China strategy. It will be critical for the next administration to collaborate with the European Union on common interests such as climate change, technology policy, human rights and democracy, and trade issues in order to form a more coherent coalition to face challenges presented by Beijing. Without coordinated action on these critical fronts, Beijing will continue to challenge global norms while seeking to alter the rules that govern the international system. Together, the United States and the European Union can overcome this challenge. Now more than ever, there is a clear path towards a reinvigorated transatlantic partnership: The road to a successful policy towards China runs through Europe.



Katrina Mulligan is managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. She previously worked in the national security division at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she provided legal and policy advice on a broad range of national policies.

Jordan Link is the China policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Laura Edwards is the China program coordinator at the Center for American Progress.

Image: U.S. Mission to the European Union (Photo by vanasschet)