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China Clouds Biden’s Transatlantic Reunion

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Of all the differences between the U.S. and its allies in Europe, how to deal with China is the most intractable.

Fresh from the G-7 love-in in Britain, President Biden is in Brussels this week to meet NATO and European Union leaders. There will no doubt be more warm words of trans-Atlantic harmony on subjects such as Covid-19, climate change and the importance of democracy.

Under the surface, points of disagreement remain. On longstanding issues such as European military spending, digital taxes, steel tariffs and subsidies for

Boeing

and

Airbus,

diplomacy can probably bring progress. Where it will struggle to make meaningful headway is in reconciling different attitudes to China.

The weekend’s G-7 communiqué was mainly hawkish on China, but the accompanying commentary highlighted the balancing act the EU has to pull off. European leaders such as France’s

Emmanuel Macron

and Italy’s

Mario Draghi

stressed the need to cooperate with Beijing.

Attitudes in Brussels toward the Asian nation have hardened, just as they have in Washington. In 2019, the EU took a big step and labeled China a “systemic rival.” It has since established powers to screen foreign investments and proposed new rules to block takeovers by government-subsidized companies. Central and Eastern European nations have also cooled on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The EU is a trading block, though, not a political superpower. It is concerned about market access and getting China to play by multilateral rules—ambitions that led it to rush through a China-EU investment treaty earlier in 2021. It worries less about Beijing’s rising geopolitical clout.

Policy swings between recent U.S. presidents, culminating in the Trump years, also have made EU leaders seek “strategic autonomy,” and that isn’t likely to change. While they have much in common with Mr. Biden, the new president has continued to make unilateral decisions with little EU consultation, including withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and supporting patent waivers for Covid-19 vaccines.

A recent poll found that one-fifth of Europeans thought of the U.S. as an ally, while just 5% said the same of China. However, many people saw both nations as necessary partners. Standing with the U.S., but not provoking China is a tricky line, particularly as Beijing grows bolder and sees itself as equal to America.

A case in point is Europe’s position on the Uyghur minority group. Washington’s language in the G-7 statement on alleged abuses was toned down by Europeans. Earlier in 2021, the EU decision to join allies in sanctioning China led Beijing to set retaliatory sanctions against EU officials, and the EU Parliament to freeze the EU-China investment treaty.

The Huawei matter also rumbles on. An American push for allies to ban the Chinese tech giant’s equipment from 5G networks has met with a predictably nuanced European response. The EU developed general 5G cybersecurity guidelines that provided tools for member states to block Huawei, but stopped short of naming the company or making it mandatory. National actions have been mixed. Sweden banned Huawei, prompting threats of retaliation and, bizarrely, lobbying from homegrown rival

Ericsson,

which has a big Chinese operation, to reverse the decision. At the other extreme, Germany is still working out what to do.

When forced into a corner, European nations will almost certainly back the U.S., but they will do everything they can to avoid taking sides. The big question for trans-Atlantic relations may be how far Washington pushes them.

Write to Rochelle Toplensky at rochelle.toplensky@wsj.com

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