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Blinken aims to pressure China, bolster Ukraine on European trip

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. will defend the “rules-based” global order as he prepares for meetings in the U.K. and Ukraine, part of an effort to keep U.S. allies united against China and show support for a crucial ally in the face of Russian aggression.

“Our purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down,” Blinken said in a interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” last week that aired on Sunday. “It is to uphold this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to. Anyone who poses a challenge to that order, we’re going to stand up and defend it.”

Blinken arrived in London Sunday evening and has talks there starting Monday, including with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to lay the groundwork for President Joe Biden’s summit with Group of Seven leaders in June.

In Kyiv, Blinken will be stepping into another delicate moment for Ukraine and its supporters in the West.

The top U.S. diplomat will test whether the Biden administration’s mantra of moving in lockstep with allies is any better at achieving U.S. goals than Trump’s more combative “America First” approach.

European allies have so far praised Biden’s focus on building a more predictable and cooperative relationship after the tumult of the Trump years. The administration has worked to coordinate action on key issues — such as sanctions against Russia over the poisoning of activist Alexey Navalny, and protesting the military coup in Myanmar — but those were non-controversial actions.

Nearly four months into Biden’s term, the stakes are rising.

Biden’s team can no longer “treat success as not being Trump,” said Wess Mitchell, who served as assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Trump administration.

“The question is, are they going to deliver on the actual outcomes that the U.S. needs from its European allies for countering China and Russia that require these allies to do things they don’t want to do — like increasing defense spending, killing Nord Stream 2 and evicting Huawei?”

Nowhere are the difficulties of Blinken’s job more clear than in the case of Germany, where outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to proceed with the nearly complete Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia despite U.S. objections that it undermines security in Western Europe.

Biden’s administration has vowed to fully enforce U.S. law calling for sanctions against those helping build the pipeline — a move that would include punishing German companies. So far, the White House has put off any such move.

And while Germany has taken a tougher approach to China than before, it’s resisted U.S. demands to banish Huawei Technologies Co. from its 5G networks, and has sought more economic engagement with Moscow.

Then there’s the European Union more broadly, which is split between nations that support Washington’s anti-China push, and Central European countries that have signed onto Beijing’s “16 + 1” trade grouping and are wary of being asked to choose a side.

“They talk about working much more closely with allies but it’s a little bit unclear if they’re willing to give the allies some of what they want,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “What compromises are they willing to make?”

European leaders will have some demands of their own. A key concern is resolving a series of transatlantic trade disputes, including those over steel tariffs and government support for Airbus SE and Boeing Co. They also want the Biden administration to reverse Trump’s hostility to the World Trade Organization.

“I don’t think the goal is to have completely aligned views on everything,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. “There’s recognition that there are going to be some areas in which we don’t have completely aligned interests.”

In Kyiv, Blinken will seek to balance Western concern about Ukraine’s domestic decisions with a public display of solidarity Russia massed troops along the border. That move sparked concern about another major incursion, seven years after President Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea.

Blinken said some Russian forces have pulled back in recent days. “I can’t tell you that we know Mr. Putin’s intentions,” he said on CBS. “There are any number of things that he could do — or choose not to do.”

The decision by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government last week to fire the board of the country’s main oil and gas company, Naftogaz Ukrainy, sparked fresh concern about Ukraine’s corporate governance, the state’s role in the economy, and its commitment to overhauling key industries. It comes just as the nation was looking to persuade the International Monetary Fund to support a $5 billion bailout.

The U.S. will “encourage more progress on Ukraine’s institutional reform and the anti-corruption agenda,” acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Reeker told reporters Friday. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

Blinken’s visit also comes as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Navy plan to send vessels to the Black Sea.

Zelensky will want to keep the focus on the IMF package and the Russian pushback. To his dismay, the Ukrainian leader is again finding his country surfacing in U.S. domestic politics, less than two years after then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment emerged from his actions and his supporters’ activities in the Eastern European nation.

Trump’s former lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had his Manhattan apartment and office searched by federal agents last week, part of a continuing investigation into his efforts to dig up dirt on Biden and his son in Ukraine ahead of the 2020 election.


© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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