BRUSSELS -- The United States and European countries are closing ranks to respond to what the U.S. calls "aggressive and coercive" behavior by China, with the U.S. and its allies having launched coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials accused of rights abuses in the far-western Xinjiang region.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that he wants to work with the U.S.' partners on "how to advance our shared economic interests and to counter some of China's aggressive and coercive actions, as well as its failures, at least in the past, to uphold its international commitments."
Blinken agreed in talks with senior European Union officials on the launch of what EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described as a dialogue on China "to discuss the full range of related challenges and opportunities."
"We share an assessment of China's role as a partner, as a competitor, and a systemic rival," Borrell told reporters after the meeting in Brussels, where Blinken has been underlining the importance that alliances and international partnerships play for the Biden administration.
Earlier, at NATO headquarters, Blinken said that "when we are acting together, we are much stronger and much more effective than if any single one of us is doing it alone." He noted that alone, the U.S. accounts for about 25% of global GDP, but the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia combine to account for 60%.
"That's a lot harder for Beijing to ignore," he said.
On Monday, the U.S., EU, Britain and Canada imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a group of officials in Xinjiang. China retaliated by slapping sanctions on 10 Europeans, including lawmakers and academics, and four institutions. Beijing said they had damaged China's interests and "maliciously spread lies and disinformation."
Initially, China denied the existence of camps detaining Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, but it has since described them as centers to provide job training and to reeducate those exposed to extremists. Chinese officials deny all accusations of human-rights abuses there.
Blinken said at NATO headquarters that Beijing's retaliatory sanctions "make it all the more important that we stand firm and stand together, or risk sending the message that bullying works."
But views on the way that business and trade should play out differ across the Atlantic.
The EU is China's biggest trading partner, but they are also economic competitors. As Beijing has become more assertive in recent years, the 27-nation bloc has struggled to balance its commercial interests with a country that it sees as rival and that it has human-rights concerns about.
The two sealed a major investment agreement in December, giving European businesses about the same level of market access in China as those from the United States. The deal was announced just weeks before President Joe Biden took office, and it raised some concerns that the Europeans were undercutting Biden's leverage as he looked to take a tough line on China.
But Blinken said that "the United States won't force our allies into an 'us-or-them' choice with China." He warned of Beijing's threatening behavior but said "that doesn't mean countries can't work with China where possible, for example on challenges like climate change and health security."
In terms of China's military aggressiveness, Blinken noted its "efforts to threaten freedom of navigation, to militarize the South China Sea, to target countries throughout the Indo-Pacific with increasingly sophisticated military capabilities. Beijing's military ambitions are growing by the year."
The U.S. wants to outcompete China, not simply seek to defeat it, Blinken said. The top American diplomat said the U.S. and its allies need to come together to develop technologies when the benefits of trading with China must be weighed against the risks.
"Consider 5G, where China's technology brings serious surveillance risks," he said of the new wireless technology that China's Huawei Technologies Co. may dominate. "We should bring together tech companies from countries like Sweden, Finland, South Korea, the U.S., and use public and private investments to foster a secure and trustworthy alternative."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday that the 30-nation alliance needed to adapt to the growing threat from China, saying the country's rise had "dire consequences" for the security of the bloc's members.
"China is a country that doesn't share our values," Stoltenberg told reporters after a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. "They actually try and undermine the international rules-based order."
The U.S. still says NATO members should boost their defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product by 2024, a goal of the alliance that became a key demand from former President Donald Trump. But Blinken said there are other ways to measure allies' commitments, suggesting Biden's administration is prepared to offer some leeway.
"We must acknowledge that because allies have distinct capabilities and comparative strengths, they will shoulder their share of the burden in different ways," Blinken said.
REPORT ON U.S.
Meanwhile, China took the U.S. to task Wednesday over racism, financial inequality and the federal government's response to the coronavirus in an annual report that seeks to counter U.S. accusations of human-rights abuses by China's ruling Communist Party.
The 28-page report issued by China's Cabinet opens with "I can't breathe," a reference to George Floyd, the Black American who was declared dead in May after a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd's neck for about nine minutes.
The document released by the State Council Information Office said the U.S. in 2020 "saw its own epidemic situation go out of control, accompanied by political disorder, inter-ethnic conflicts, and social division." It highlighted the Jan. 6 insurrectionist attack on the Capitol as well as gun violence and health disparities.
"What happened on Capitol Hill revealed the shortcomings of U.S. democracy," Chang Jian, the director of a center for human-rights studies at Nankai University in Tianjin, China, said at a government news conference.
"And that is the two political parties would sometimes do everything they can to advance their own interests. ... They would incite division and violence among the people. So can U.S. society continue to prosper under its current democratic system? I would put a question mark on it."
China release the report each year in response to U.S. criticism of its record on issues such as abuses against minority groups in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet and a crackdown on opposition voices in Hong Kong.
China has used the covid-19 pandemic, which has killed many more people in the U.S. than in China, to highlight the Communist Party's handling of the outbreak -- and by extension, what it sees as the benefits of its system.
"To defeat the epidemic requires mutual help, solidarity and cooperation among all countries. However, the United States, which has always considered itself an exception and superior, saw its own epidemic situation go out of control, accompanied by political disorder, inter-ethnic conflicts, and social division," the report said.
"Vulnerable groups became the biggest victims of the government's reckless response to the epidemic," it said.
The Chinese report is based on open-source material, as opposed to the U.S.' annual congressional report on China, which is largely drawn from work by diplomats, journalists and human-rights activists who cannot always reveal their information because of threats of retaliation from the Communist Party.
Information for this article was contributed by Lorne Cook and Ken Moritsugu of The Associated Press; and by Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg News.