The United States plans to “repair” and “revitalize” cooperation with its European allies as Washington and Beijing are seen as competing for influence in supporting vaccine distribution and post-pandemic recovery in Europe.
U.S. President Joe Biden is set to speak virtually at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will engage virtually with his counterparts from France, Germany and the United Kingdom — the so-called E3 — to discuss what State Department spokesperson Ned Price called “shared global challenges.”
Blinken will also participate in the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council on February 22 at the invitation of EU High Representative Josep Borrell.
Biden’s speech would come after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to boost imports from Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries into the Chinese market in coming years.
Last week, Xi chaired a long-delayed virtual summit with leaders and senior officials from the so-called “17+1” bloc, eyeing access to the European COVID-19 vaccines market while reasserting China’s influence in the region.
The 17+1 bloc was launched in 2012 as China sought cooperation with CEE nations. Twelve of those are European Union members.
“China is willing to actively consider the vaccine cooperation needs of CEE countries,” Xi said, citing Serbia and Hungary as two countries that have already begun to roll out nationwide vaccination programs with Chinese vaccines.
“China intends to import, in the coming five years, more than 170 billion U.S. dollars of goods from CEE countries,” Xi said, proposing to set up a farm produce wholesale market in the CEE region, in a bid to double CEE countries’ agricultural exports to China and raise two-way agricultural trade by 50% over the next five years.
Beijing’s appeal to European countries came as Washington is shoring up efforts to, as officials described it, “revitalize core alliances” and return to multilateralism.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to deepening dialogue and cooperation with our allies and partners on China, starting with Europe,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.
“We recognize our European partners have their own interests and relationships, and we are not forcing them to choose between China and the United States. However, we remain concerned that China has frequently used multilateral organizations as a tool to advance the PRC’s economic, national security and foreign policy interests at the expense of other countries’ peace and prosperity, respect for human rights and the rules-based international order,” said the spokesperson.
Regional observers said Xi was greeted with a cold reception, with six nations choosing to send ministers instead of heads of state to the virtual summit, the lowest level of representation in nine years.
The six nations are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia.
“Based on [the] collective work of @chinaobseervers, the preliminary list of participation from CEE countries at the 17+1 [is expected to be] the lowest level [of] representation in the history of the summit,” tweeted China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, a group of experts that provide informed analysis on the rising influence of China in the region.
Based on a collective work of @chinaobseervers the preliminary list of participation from CEE countries at the 17+1 seems is as below. The lowest level representation in the history of the summit. pic.twitter.com/gE24VRbIqT
— ChinaObservers (@chinaobservers) February 9, 2021
Other observers said Beijing’s biggest success at the virtual summit was proving that the 17+1 bloc is “not dead,” while noting that Xi failed to attract all CEE heads of state to attend despite personal invitations and “desperate actions” of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“No tangible additional influence gained in the EU by Beijing,” tweeted Jakub Jakóbowski, senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based think tank.
“Little chance for this summit to stop the deterioration of relations with CEE (econ. co-op stalled, wolf warrior conflicts, US pressure),” Jakóbowski added. “Certainly won’t derail CEE-US regional co-op.”
Little chance for this summit to stop the deterioration of relations with CEE (econ. co-op stalled, wolf warrior conflicts, US pressure). Certainly won’t derail CEE-US regional co-op. Also, unlike 🇩🇪🇫🇷-led #CAI, no tangible additional influence gained in the EU by Beijing (4/4)
— Jakub Jakóbowski (@J_Jakobowski) February 9, 2021
In January, Serbia received a million doses of Chinese Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the first European country to use Chinese vaccines for its mass rollout.
Serbia and China have maintained close ties as Chinese companies invest billions of euros in Serbia’s infrastructure and energy projects.
Also in January, Hungary became the first European Union country to approve China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine. Many EU countries rely on vaccines provided by American companies Pfizer and Moderna.