STATE DEPARTMENT - The United States is looking to scrutinize China's commitments under an investment deal that was signed in late December between the European Union and China, a senior State Department official told VOA Tuesday.
It comes as U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is working closely with European allies to push back on what American officials describe as China's undermining activities to shared values and the rules based international order.
"If China did make additional concessions in that agreement on things like market access, on forced labor, we certainly welcome that, although we really would look to the Chinese to prove that that's not just cheap talk, and that they're going to implement those commitments," said Molly Montgomery, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs.
The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment is seen as a geopolitical win for China, and a blow to transatlantic relations despite concerns over the deal in the European Parliament.
US-brokered Serbia-Kosovo talks unlikely
In a recent interview with VOA, Montgomery also said the United States is committed to working with the European Union, which facilitates the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Her comments come as Kosovo's Vetevendosje party leader Albin Kurti is set to become prime minister after the February 14 elections.
Kurti has said that forming a negotiating team for dialogue with Serbia would not be a priority for his government.
When asked about the possibility of a U.S.-brokered dialogue, Montgomery told VOA: "We certainly continue to support the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and to look toward a comprehensive agreement, a normalization agreement that would lead to mutual recognition, or on the basis of mutual recognition."
The following are excerpts from the interview. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: What is the top policy priority of Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs in coming years?
Montgomery: I think the president has made it very clear beginning with his inaugural address that our priority really is to rebuild our relationships with our allies and partners in Europe. We believe that they are the cornerstone of everything that we are trying to do, whether that is fighting COVID-19, or climate change, or pushing back against malign activities from Russia and China. We want to be working with our European partners. But we also, I will say, continue to believe that our goal for Europe is really a Europe whole, free, prosperous and at peace. So we'll be working toward that goal for the next four years.
VOA: As China is competing with the U.S. for vaccine distribution and post-pandemic recovery in Europe, what is your takeaway on the recent China-CEEC group, also known as "17 plus 1," virtual summit between China and Central and Eastern Europe countries?
Montgomery: I think all countries, whether it's the United States or Europe, have a multifaceted and very complex relationship with China. There are parts of that relationship that are adversarial. Some of it is competitive and there are also areas where we want to cooperate with China. And so, I think our focus really is working on a multilateral basis with our allies and partners to strengthen our cooperation, and to look at areas where we can cooperate with China, such as on climate change, but also to be aware that there are economic activities that we want to push back on. There are threats to our values and there are human rights violations, such as we've seen in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. And particularly the genocide - [about which] the U.S. government has been very clear - has been committed against mostly Muslim Uighurs in China. And so we're really focused on working with our allies and our partners to develop an affirmative agenda as we look at this complex relationship with China, and to defend our values and our shared interests as well.
VOA: We are hearing voices from European countries doubting the U.S. is wavering in its position on the policy determination that genocide has been committed against Uighurs in Xinjiang. Is the U.S. wavering in its position?
Montgomery: The United States has been very clear - Secretary Blinken has been very clear - that we believe that what has happened in Xinjiang is genocide, that we have seen crimes against humanity committed against the Uighurs. And we've been very clear that these are very serious crimes and that there needs to be accountability. We have condemned these activities, these crimes - and we have made it clear that we need to see a stop to these human rights violations, to forced sterilizations, to torture, to other crimes that have been perpetrated primarily against mostly Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, especially.
VOA: Moving on to vaccine distribution. Serbia and Hungary have become the first European countries to use China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, many European countries rely on vaccines produced by American company Pfizer. Is there a divide? Is the United States pressing European countries to choose between Washington and Beijing?
Montgomery: No. You know, we are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. At the same time, we believe that we are strongest when we work together to promote and to protect our shared values and interests. And so that's why you see that ... this administration has engaged very actively in the first month in multilateral fora [to work] with allies and partners, as well as with countries like China, to promote global health security. We want to work together to see an end to this pandemic.
But at the same time, we also know that China uses the multilateral system to promote its own interests to undermine some of our shared values, and so we want to work very closely with our partners and our allies to protect those interests, and to push back where we see that China is trying to undermine the rules based international order.
VOA: How confident is the U.S. to work with its European allies on a unified approach towards China after the EU-China investment deal? Was the U.S. caught by surprise by this deal?
Montgomery: We really look forward to having early consultations with the EU on this investment agreement. I think you've heard from Secretary Blinken and from others - our allies have certainly heard that we're eager to look for areas where we can cooperate on China, on the basis of our shared values, and to promote our mutual interests.
Listen, if China did make additional concessions in that agreement on things like market access, on forced labor, we certainly welcome that. Although we really would look to the Chinese to prove that that's not just cheap talk, and that they're going to implement those commitments. And so we really look forward to having conversations moving forward with the EU and with our European allies and partners about working together on these issues.
VOA: On recent Kosovo elections: what is your takeaway? Is the prospect for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue dimmer?
Montgomery: We certainly continue to support the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and to look toward a comprehensive agreement, a normalization agreement that would lead to mutual recognition, or on the basis of mutual recognition. And so that will be our goal moving forward.
VOA: Do you envision a U.S.-brokered Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, independent of a parallel EU effort, under the Biden administration?
Montgomery: We're really committed to working with the EU, which facilitates the dialogue, and with our partners in tandem. This is, I think, a very important principle for our engagement in the Western Balkans. We know that we have been most successful there when we have worked hand in glove, or shoulder to shoulder with our European allies and partners, and so that's going to be our approach.
VOA: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Visegrad Group (V4). How does the U.S. envision its cooperation with the V4 in coming years?
Montgomery: Well, you've seen that we have congratulated the V4, the countries of the the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, on 30 years of cooperation in the Visegrad Group format. We really look forward to partnering with them on shared challenges, everything from COVID-19 to climate to things like strengthening our democracies and independent media.
VOA: Thank you for talking to VOA.
Montgomery: Great to be with you.