Biden Hosts Merkel Swan-Song Visit Amid Russia, China Clouds

President Joe Biden is hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Thursday, with the two leaders likely to brush past pleasantries over their renewed trans-Atlantic bond and focus on hardened differences over Russia and China.

Making her 23rd and probably final visit to the U.S. during her 16-year chancellorship, Merkel plans to discuss key issues between the two countries rather than give valedictory speeches. Central to talks will be U.S. criticism of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline link between Russia and Germany, which Merkel has backed.

Biden Hosts Merkel Swan-Song Visit Amid Russia, China Clouds

At the start of the meeting, Merkel told reporters through an interpreter: “We have an opportunity to talk more about our bilateral relationship, about the relationship of Germany and America, obviously in the context of European matters. We can also talk about matters that relate to European neighbors, geopolitical issues.”

Biden said cooperation between the two countries is “strong.”

“We hope we continue that and I’m confident we will,” Biden said.

Merkel has a much more comfortable relationship with Biden than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who repeatedly pilloried the chancellor over trade, the pipeline and defense spending.

But Biden’s more hospitable approach belies an undercurrent of tension over how to grapple with Russia and China. In both cases, Merkel is resistant to a firmer approach favored by the U.S. administration -- and she’s eager to assert European interests where they were once in lockstep with the U.S.

Biden has called the Baltic Sea pipeline a “bad deal,” though his administration this year suspended sanctions tailored to halt the construction of Nord Stream 2. American negotiators want guarantees from Merkel that Vladimir Putin of Russia can be kept in check -- and that he won’t use the pipeline to cut off gas flow through Ukraine, which relies on transit fees.

Earlier this week, Merkel made an overture toward Biden, vowing that Europe will “do everything” to ensure the taps stay on. She said a finalized agreement over Nord Stream will likely come in August.

On China, Merkel favors a path between calling out rights violations while pursuing engagement that she views as unavoidable. By contrast, the Biden administration has adopted much of Trump’s hawkish stance.

Merkel spearheaded a European Union-China investment agreement, which was hashed out at the end of last year before Biden took office. The accord, though currently stalled, was also a statement of intention from Europe that it would assert its interests before consulting with the U.S.

The two leaders will release the so-called Washington Declaration, a renewal of ties outlining common approaches to policy, a U.S. official told reporters ahead of the visit. In a decisive shift from Trump, the document will reinforce a commitment to the rules-based international order, human rights and democracy.

The German leader began the day in Washington with a breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris. She also received an honorary doctorate -- her 18th -- from Johns Hopkins University. After bilateral talks and a news conference, the president and first lady plan to host Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, a retired professor of physics who will put in a rare appearance.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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