On a sunny afternoon in early April, about a dozen diplomats from European and other allied nations gathered with their American counterparts around a conference table at the State Department. In a month’s time, China’s President Xi Jinping would host a summit in Beijing to celebrate his grand infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Americans wanted to send Xi a message.
At the meeting in Washington, D.C., they pressed their allies to sign on to a joint statement condemning the Chinese plan. But it soon became clear that neither the Europeans nor a small group of other countries from Asia and Latin America were ready to fall in line.
“No one was willing to go along with it,” one European diplomat familiar with the details of the meeting, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, told me. “We may agree that China is a strategic threat, but you can’t just put them in a corner.”
For the Europeans, the meeting at the State Department was another sign of what they see as the White House’s misguided zero-sum approach to dealing with China, and its mistaken belief that it can employ an à la carte approach with its partners, denouncing them publicly on some issues while expecting cooperation on others. For the Americans, the talks were the latest sign of Europe’s reluctance to stand up to China. “Europe,” one person close to the Trump administration who declined to be named told me, “is almost on a different planet.”
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