Competition and Compromise: The Biden Administration’s Emerging China Policy and the Prospect for Transatlantic Cooperation

April 28, 2021

After four years of tumultuous U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration, the Biden presidency is aiming to bring a more strategic and disciplined approach, especially with regard to China. Members of President Biden’s foreign and security policy team have steadily laid out their vision of managing the increasingly competitive relationship between the United States and China. Biden’s secretary of state Antony Blinken described China in his Senate confirmation hearing as the country that “poses the most significant challenge” to the United States. Other cabinet members, including defense secretary Lloyd Austin and treasury secretary Janet Yellen, have pledged to adopt a firm stance on China and the topic has featured in the first contacts those cabinet members have had with their German counterparts.

There will be significant policy continuity in the new administration, which sees China as a strategic competitor and will continue to rebalance U.S. military assets toward Asia and strengthen democratic alliances. Washington is likely to deescalate bilateral economic tit-for-tat with China while pressuring Beijing to abide by international trade rules and attempting to organize a coalition of developed democracies to enhance leverage. On the other hand, Biden has made it clear that his administration must prioritize pressing domestic issues such as the pandemic and the economic recovery, and there are indications that his trade and industrial policy may differ significantly from that of liberal trade traditionalists.

Managing the economic consequences of the Sino-U.S. rivalry will remain one of the biggest challenges for the Biden administration. Washington faces the difficult task of balancing America’s deeply rooted economic interests, its goal to stay ahead of competition in crucial and emerging industries, and its efforts to reassemble a global liberal trade alliance.

China’s expanding strategic footprint presents another key test for the Biden administration. Its Belt and Road Initiative, buttressed by robust Chinese financing, digital and surveillance technologies, and newly invigorated health diplomacy, challenges U.S. influence and undermines democratic governance from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Beijing’s maritime ambition in the South China Sea threatens to disrupt the balance to power in the region for four decades as well as U.S. and allies’ interests there. While Biden has committed to strengthening old alliances and building new coalitions to deal with these challenges, China has been actively recruiting partners of its own, attracting them with trade and investment incentives and restraining them with threats of economic coercion.
The Biden administration’s China policy is eagerly anticipated by its European allies with a mixture of relief that the confrontational tone will diminish and trepidation about Washington’s expectations of the EU and key member states like Germany. While the EU has underscored its readiness for a transatlantic dialogue on China with the Biden administration, the EU’s agreement in principle on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China at the end of the German presidency sparked fresh doubts about the prospect of a renewed transatlantic partnership to deal with common challenges posed by China. The CAI also ignited a debate within the EU, especially in Germany, with some voices questioning the direction of its China policy and how to respond to Washington’s overture.

This workshop will assess U.S. policy toward China in the early days of the Biden administration and discuss the prospect for transatlantic cooperation. How is the administration translating into policy its campaign commitments with respect to China? Has the EU-China CAI or other recent European developments affected official US thinking? What key areas are emerging for transatlantic cooperation regarding China in the next four years? As the geopolitical center stage shifts to the Indo-Pacific, can Germany and the EU be effective partners with the United States in that region?


Volker Stanzel is a retired German diplomat who served from 1979 to 2013. He currently teaches Politics of Memory at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and heads a project on Diplomacy and Artificial Intelligence at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, of which he is a Senior Distinguished Fellow.

In the German Foreign Service, he held posts as Political Director (2007-2009), Ambassador to China (2004-2007) and to Japan (2009-2013), Director General for Political Affairs (2002-2004), Asia Director (2001-2002), and Director for Civilian Use of Nuclear Energy (1999-2001). From 1995 to 1998, he worked with the Social Democratic Party in the German Bundestag, and in 1998-1999 he was a Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C.

After retiring, Stanzel taught at Claremont McKenna College and the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014, at Free University in Berlin in 2015, and at Dokkyo University in Japan in 2016. He is President of the Association of German-Japanese Societies, a Council Member to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Board Member of the Academic Confucius Institute at Goettingen University, and was Vice President of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin in 2018-2019.

Susan A. Thornton is Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center. In 2018, she retired from the State Department after a 28-year diplomatic career focused primarily on East and Central Asia. In leadership roles in Washington, Thornton worked on China and Korea policy, including stabilizing relations with Taiwan, the U.S.-China Cyber Agreement, the Paris Climate Accord and led a successful negotiation in Pyongyang for monitoring of the Agreed Framework on denuclearization.

In her 18 years of overseas postings in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus and China, Thornton’s leadership furthered U.S. interests and influence and maintained programs and mission morale in a host of difficult operating environments. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, she was among the first State Department Fascell Fellows and served from 1989–90 at the U.S. Consulate in Leningrad. She was also a researcher at the Foreign Policy Institute from 1987–91. Thornton holds degrees from the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Bowdoin College. She speaks Russian, Mandarin Chinese and French, is a member of numerous professional associations and is on the Board of Trustees for the Eurasia Foundation.

Gunnar Wiegand has been Managing Director for Asia and the Pacific of the European External Action Service (EEAS) since January 2016.

He is the EU’s Senior Official for the Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM) as well as for the EU-ASEAN relations. In addition, he is the EU’s Chief Negotiator for the new EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement.

Before assuming this function he was Deputy Managing Director Europe and Central Asia since September 2015 and Director Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia and OSCE since 2011 at the EEAS. In this function he has been the EU’s Chief Negotiator for the Association Agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, as well as the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan. He also negotiated the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda, and was the EU Coordinator of the EU-Russia Partnership for Modernisation.

Before this Gunnar Wiegand had worked in various functions related to external relations and trade policy at the European Commission since 1990, including as Desk Officer for external aspects of German unification, as Policy Assistant of the Director-General for Trade Policy, as Spokesman for External Relations to Commissioner Chris Patten until 2002, as Head of Unit, first for Relations with the United States and Canada (2002-2006) and then for Relations with Russia and the Northern Dimension (2006-2008). In 2008 he was appointed Director for Eastern Europe, Southern Caucasus and Central Asia at the European Commission’s External Relations Directorate-General.

Prior to working for EU Institutions Gunnar Wiegand worked at IRELA the Institute of European Latin American Relations in Madrid (1985-1987) and at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Bonn (1987-1990).

This event is generously supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.