United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NATO allies that China is a threat to the West but that the US will not force anyone to choose sides between Washington and Beijing.
Blinken has been meeting with his European counterparts in Brussels during his first trip to Europe as Secretary of State. China, Russia, the Iran nuclear deal and a May 1 deadline for US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, where NATO forces remain, have loomed large over the two days of meetings.
In remarks Wednesday at NATO headquarters, Blinken said that the US “won’t force allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China”, even as the Biden administration continues to portray Beijing’s military and economic assertiveness as one of the biggest threats to global stability.
Echoing the administration’s own approach to China, Blinken said that “countries can work with China where possible” on issues such as climate change.
However, Blinken also accused Beijing of undermining the international trading order that the United States and its allies built after World War II.
“They are actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share,” Blinken said of China.
“If we work together to make real our positive vision for the international order … we’re confident that we can outcompete China on any playing field,” he added.
China, for its part, has denied any such plans and says it respects global rules upheld by international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund.
The visit comes as some European allies, notably France and Germany, are looking for a strategic balance in relations with Beijing and Washington that ensures the European Union is not so closely allied with one of the world’s two big powers that it alienates the other.
The United States, the EU, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday for rights abuses in Xinjiang, in the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under Biden. Beijing hit back with punitive measures against the EU.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Wednesday that “China is a country that doesn’t share our values,” referring to NATO as a club of democracies favouring free speech and freedom of association.
Blinken also used the visit to warn against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany. The US has opposed the project for more than a decade, saying it would increase EU dependency on Moscow. Germany has pushed for the projects completion.
Blinken, during a news conference on Wednesday, said he had told his German counterpart Heiko Maas in a private meeting that companies involved in the project risked American sanctions.
Blinken declined to give more details but said the US was closely monitoring construction on the pipeline under the Baltic Sea, which is nearly complete.
Meanwhile, Blinken urged Turkish Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a private meeting on Wednesday, not to retain the S-400 air defense system it had bought from Russia.
The purchase is a key issue that has clouded relations between Washington and Ankara, and has lead to the imposition of American sanctions.
Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that he had told Blinken that Ankara’s purchase was “a done deal”.
Afghanistan withdrawal and Iran nuclear deal
Blinken also again offered little insight into whether the US planned to meet the May 1 deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a provision of a deal struck between the administration of former President Donald Trump and the Taliban.
Biden has said meeting the deadline will be “tough”.
Blinken said he would relay points raised by NATO members to Biden, but said he reiterated to allies: “We went in together. We adjusted together. And when the time is right. We will leave together.”
After meeting with officials from the UK, France, Germany and the EU – all parties to the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal – Blinken also signalled little progress had been made in the ongoing standoff between Washington and Tehran.
Tehran has said it will not return to compliance with the deal, in which it agreed to curtail its nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief, until the US lifts current sanctions.
Washington has said Tehran must first return to compliance.
An EU official had previously suggested hosting talks with the parties, which Iran has so far refused.
“We are all very much on the same page when it comes to Iran,” Blinken said of the European parties to the agreement.
“When it comes to our common interest in seeing if Iran wants to engage in diplomacy to come back fully into compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, we are again prepared to engage on that,” he said. “To date, Iran has not been.”