"On all issues that matter to US-China relations," said President-elect Joe Biden, "we are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of the world. " Indeed, the outcome of the US-China competition will depend to a large extent on how skilfully Washington urges like-minded nations to turn bilateral competition into multilateral competition. After all, public polls show growing international concern about China's malicious activities. However, a key question remains: if Beijing poses such a clear global threat, why has Washington fought so mightily to form a coalition to counter its rise?
Many Trump administration officials accused so-called freeride allies and partners of shirking their obligations. Conversely, most outside experts blamed the Trump administration's America First approach of alienating many of these allies and partners – a mistake that the in-depth Biden administration can presumably easily correct. There is some truth to both explanations, but deeper forces also operate. The separation between US strategy and global reality has its roots in two fundamental misconceptions.
First, many American ideas about competition with China are based on the false assumption that this competition will be properly bipolar – a repeat of the East-West stalemate in Europe during the Cold War. In reality, a much more chaotic world is taking shape. Frustrated European leaders are going their own way, with some advocating equidistance between Washington and Beijing. Major third countries such as India, Indonesia and Turkey are exploring similar options. These countries have no need to fully join the United States or China if they can win, if they play Washington and Beijing against each other. As a result, this will be a multipolar competition, not a bipolar one.
Second, hopes for a "new alliance of democracies," as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocated, often reflect the false belief that a single alliance will be created to counter China. This could be the case if the same group of countries see China as a military rival, economic rival, technological rival, and ideological rival. In an environment characterized by fluid alignments, the composition of the coalition against China will change depending on the problem. The major countries will work with America on some issues but not on others. The countries that fear Chinese military power most are not always the same countries that fear authoritarian influence the most. In order to be successful in a multi-faceted competition, not one, but many coalitions are required.
In particular, the United States must form a geostrategic coalition of countries opposed to Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, an economic coalition to offset the leverage offered by China's trading power, a technological coalition to ensure that the CCP does not seize command of the heights Innovation in the 21st century and a coalition government that can prevent Beijing from rewriting the world's rules and norms. Gone are the days when America could simply pull the West on its side. Unless the United States takes a more nuanced approach to coalition building, it will no longer seek to restore a world that no longer exists.
At the beginning of the Cold War, Winston Churchill declared that "the security of the world requires a new unity" against the "Soviet sphere". It wasn't easy to come up with a unified approach, but it was made easier by the lack of good alternatives. Only US military strength could protect Europe from Soviet rule and create a climate of security in which former enemies such as France and West Germany could reconcile. Only US economic aid could save the weak economies. For most of Western Europe, allying with the United States wasn't just the best option. it was the only option. The task of building this network of alliances was made easier by the fact that most Western European countries, with American help, shared similar political values and economic institutions. In the mid-1950s, most of the US allies in Europe were democracies with advanced industrialized countries. America's European allies therefore took similar approaches to addressing the geostrategic, economic, technological, and governance challenges posed by the Soviet Union.
To counter the military threat posed by the Soviets, the western bloc formed alliances with the United States, particularly NATO. The transatlantic allies dealt with economic issues under the Marshall Plan and a number of institutions – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – that promoted recovery and growth within a capitalist framework. And when the United Nations was crippled by disagreements in the Cold War, the West built regional organizations – like the European Community – to encourage cooperation based on common liberal norms. The memberships of these different institutions have never been entirely congruent. By and large, the European countries that worked most closely with Washington on geostrategic issues were also those that worked most closely together on economic issues and best shared their commitment to democracy.
This model was spectacularly successful in the Cold War, which is why US policy makers are so quick to fall back on it when they think of China. But Beijing is not Moscow with Chinese characteristics. And the world America now lives in is not that of the Cold War. There is much less consistency between key issues today than in the Cold War in Europe. American allies like Italy have signed up for China's Belt and Road Initiative. Important US partners like Vietnam are not democratic. Many of the countries hardest hit by China's brutal human rights violations and individual freedoms are not geographically positioned to challenge Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. Subject to Beijing's massive reach, the United States will struggle to create a twenty-first-century equivalent of the western bloc. Instead of building a single alliance of democracies, America will need four separate coalitions.
The geostrategic coalition
The first coalition is geostrategic and should focus on preventing China from using force or coercion in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing's desire to replace the United States as the leading power in the region is a central theme of Chinese statecraft. It underpins a longstanding military build-up as well as recent efforts to force neighbors from Japan to India via the Philippines. If China succeeds, it could use its primacy in the Indo-Pacific as a stepping stone to more expansive global goals. From the US point of view, it is not enough to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in order to compete with China, but it is necessary.
Washington cannot tackle this or any other aspect of rivalry alone. Fortunately, there are already elements of a geostrategic compensation coalition: the United States has dozens of formal treaty allies in Europe and five in Asia. Unfortunately, these alliances were primarily built to contain Soviet communism and cannot simply be rerouted to cope with China's rise. Some allies, including most NATO members, are physically too far from China to balance its power in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. Others, like Thailand, have little interest in aligning themselves directly with China because they are increasingly looking to Beijing for not only its prosperity but also its security.
The geostrategic coalition should instead include those countries that tend to balance Beijing where it matters most – along its territorial and maritime periphery. That list begins with Japan, a major regional power that is strongly committed to halting China's efforts to undo the status quo in the western Pacific. Other regional allies in the US also play a crucial role. Australia weathered a heavy pressure campaign from Beijing and recently revamped its defense strategy with China in mind. South Korea is also facing China's coercive pressure and is increasingly trying to expand its geopolitical influence beyond the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, the Philippines is a more challenging ally, but Manila could revert to a firmer stance on Beijing once Rodrigo Duterte leaves office.
Around this core of allies is a growing network of security partners. These partners include Vietnam, the youngest country to wage a major war against the People's Liberation Army. India, a major player in the Indian Ocean and along China's southwestern border that has brought China more into balance in recent years; Singapore, which has tacitly grown into a center of US military activity in Southeast Asia; and Taiwan, which has more experience than anyone in preventing Chinese use of force and coercion. If China continues to hide its hand, it could even encourage fence sitters like Malaysia and Indonesia to join this coalition to protect their maritime rights in the South China Sea.
Together, with US support, these countries would create obstacles to China's use of military might on key borders. By working together, these countries could ensure that the growth in China's military capabilities is balanced by the development of a counter-coalition. And if the balancing coalition shows promise, it could attract countries hit by China's rise but unsure whether their participation would be beneficial. For example, the UK, France, Germany and Canada have some power projection skills and have shown an interest in resisting Chinese pressure. Over time, they and others could help keep Beijing embroiled in a geostrategic web that is tightened when China uses force or coercion.
As membership in this geostrategic coalition shows, this would not be an Asian version of NATO. The countries involved are too diverse – in terms of geography, capabilities, and governance – to create a formal, deeply institutionalized alliance that Washington has with Europe. This limits the military interoperability that a NATO-like structure enables, but it is also beneficial as many members of the geostrategic coalition would refuse to align themselves more formally against China. Bringing these countries together therefore requires more flexible and sometimes more subtle approaches.
Calm employees talk about how they can help a particular member in the event of a conflict. This may be more common than formal security guarantees. New mechanisms would need to be built to allow countries to be 'plug and play' when they want to participate in an exercise or operation. Multilateral initiatives can start small, as was the case with the Quad (an informal but increasingly ambitious group involving the US, Australia, India and Japan), which originally focused on disaster relief. Members of a geostrategic coalition would prepare for different topics at different times, so creative collaboration will be the key to effective competition.
Much of China's geostrategic challenge stems from its immense economic leverage. So the United States will also need a new approach to economic competition. At its peak, the Soviet economy was perhaps a third the size of the US economy. China surpassed that mark a long time ago, and its economy dwarfs that of an American rival for the past 100 years. Most Europeans today see China as the world's leading economic power, not the United States. And Beijing is already the most important trading partner of almost all countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
Beijing has turned this economic influence into a diplomatic advantage by using trade restrictions to punish countries that criticize its human rights abuses, question its performance on COVID-19, or oppose its regional expansion. It dangles from trade, credit, and investment to include countries in its Belt and Road initiative, which brings China's economic, diplomatic, and sometimes military influence. And perhaps most worryingly, Beijing continues to engage in a wide variety of unfair trade practices, from theft of intellectual property to massive government-controlled subsidies. This state control over economic conduct and a willingness to leverage it overseas creates a number of strategic imperatives for the United States and other countries to maintain their freedom of action.
Countries in the Indo-Pacific that are heavily dependent on Chinese trade must protect themselves from geopolitical pressure by diversifying their economic relationships. Many countries need to selectively decouple from China in certain critical sectors – from personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals to components of sophisticated military equipment – to avoid dangerous dependencies. After all, the United States and its friends must promote stronger economic growth to compete with China so that the balance of economic power does not shift too far in Beijing's favor. After the Cold War, Washington pursued economic integration across geopolitical boundaries in hopes of making those lines disappear. Washington must now seek deeper economic cooperation within geopolitical boundaries: it must form a broad coalition of countries that pledge to force China to play by a common set of rules and otherwise weaken its economic leverage.
The economic coalition would not reside in a single institution or organization. Like the geostrategic coalition, it would consist of overlapping subgroups of countries committed to the basic purpose. The signatories to the comprehensive and progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement – a pact originally intended in part to reduce its members' dependence on Chinese money and Chinese markets – would be natural partners. This also applies to Atlantic democracies, which are increasingly disrupted by China's unfair trade practices and economic diplomacy. Other nations like India that could benefit from supply chain realignments could also participate, as could developing countries trying to break free of Beijing's economic influence. The economic coalition would thus extend across regions; This would include both advanced economies and emerging markets.
These countries could pursue various complementary initiatives. A group of advanced economies could collectively penalize companies that are found to steal intellectual property or benefit from unfair government subsidies. You could create a system of multilateral controls on sensitive exports to China, similar to the coordination committee for multilateral export controls during the Cold War. They could also increase and pool the resources available for infrastructure investments in developing countries to make it less tempting for key countries to accept adverse deals with Beijing. These efforts could build on emerging multilateral initiatives to protect critical supply chains that several Indo-Pacific democracies are already considering.
Most ambitiously, the economic coalition could pursue trade deals to fuel the growth of its members. Instead of increasing the trend towards de-globalization, this could encourage re-globalization on fairer terms. The United States and other countries have already taken initial steps in this direction. However, the lack of coordination suggests that the economic coalition has recently lacked its obvious leader. Rather than serving as the fulcrum for high-standard economic arrangements, the Trump administration deepened divisions within the world, trading modest, short-term commercial gains for larger, long-term strategic losses. US leadership remains vital to overcoming coordination problems and catalyzing collective action. Without it, the economic coalition will falter.
The technological coalition
The geostrategic and economic challenges arising from China's rise also point to the need for a technological coalition. China's efforts to overtake the world's most advanced industrialized countries have led the CCP to establish "national champions" in key technology areas such as semiconductors, robotics, and information technology. As part of its Made in China 2025 plan, Beijing has used market restrictions and massive government subsidies to gain unfair economic benefits. It has also stolen huge amounts of information and technology, valued at and although the world has so far mainly focused on 5G networks, there are a number of other advanced technologies – like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, automation and biotechnology – that will be of vital importance to the industry of the future.
The implications of the technological challenge in China are deeply worrying. If Chinese companies take a leadership role in building the world's 5G networks, Beijing could gain access to significant information and economic leverage. These benefits will only increase as China leverages its early lead in 5G to include additional countries, particularly in developing countries, in its tech space. However, the risks go well beyond this particular technology. One of the United States’s greatest difficulties in technological competition is that the scale of the Chinese domestic market – and the amount of data available to Chinese companies – creates advantages that no single democracy can match. Similarly, the Chinese government's investment in many advanced technologies is outpacing that of other leading countries.
Over time, technology racing could increasingly impact other areas of competition. China's technological advancement could help Beijing catch up or outperform the United States economically, undoing a huge advantage Washington had over Moscow during the Cold War. Research into AI, machine learning, autonomy, and robotics could ultimately translate into an asymmetrical military advantage for Beijing. Like then-USA. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper noted in September: "Those who are the first to use technology in a generation will often have a distinct advantage on the battlefields in the years to come." China could also gain a geopolitical lead through the development and spread of techno-authoritarianism. The CCP tries to maintain its power by creating advanced surveillance and censorship systems. By spreading these systems, it is also helping to anchor autocrats around the world. And as Beijing gets more technologically advanced, it will have greater success in setting global technology standards like cyber sovereignty that will benefit autocrats. Only a joint effort can compensate for these challenges.
One of the main goals of a technology coalition should therefore be to jointly accelerate development and subsidize the introduction of alternatives to Chinese technology, starting with 5G and extending to other critical areas. Such a coalition could counter the inherent benefits of scale and unfair market access restrictions that China currently enjoys. Furthermore, as a sort of common market for advanced technologies, a coalition of this nature could ensure a common set of technology standards, rules and norms that democracies can protect. Leading countries could also work together to regulate Chinese technology companies operating in democratic countries and ensure that investments are properly screened from both an economic and a safety perspective.
Efforts to build a technological coalition should focus on advanced economies. The G7 countries – US, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, UK, and Italy – all qualify. This also applies to techno-democracies like Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea, Israel, and Taiwan. The group could also include India, which has less technological power but a massive market and has recently become more concerned about its technological reliance on China. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed a version of this coalition: an expanded G-7 that would encourage collective investment in 5G and other emerging technologies, which he called the D-10. Others have suggested a similar construct, but one that focuses more explicitly on technology: the T-12.
The challenges associated with forming such a technology coalition are numerous. This would require, among other things, stronger industrial policies in the United States and some other democracies, as well as greater efforts to align these policies. This would require broad cooperation on long-term challenges, but also rapid action in areas such as 5G, where the window to prevent Chinese control is quickly closing. Most importantly, it would require a multilateral ethos that has been sorely lacking in US politics of late. Nonetheless, the idea has gained prominence in high positions, including technology leaders, allies in the US, the new Biden government and on Capitol Hill. Given the scale and scale of the technological challenge China poses, creating a technological coalition is not as far-fetched as it once seemed.
After all, competition between the US and China is not just about geostrategic, economic and technological rivalries. it is also inevitably ideological. As Chinese politicians and scholars themselves have argued, the CCP cannot feel safe in a world where universal values and a democratic superpower prevail. The Chinese leaders are therefore trying to create a system in which authoritarian rule is protected. They have done this by supporting dictators from Southeast Asia to Latin America, disseminating the tools and techniques of suppression of illiberal rulers around the world, and seeking greater scrutiny of international organizations that set rules and norms for global governance. In response, the United States must assemble a coalition of democracies committed to protecting democratic principles and universal values.
This final coalition should be supraregional as it will be determined by political philosophy rather than geography. Its core members would be the most important democracies in the world, mainly in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. In this endeavor, countries like Canada and New Zealand would be just as important as larger states like Germany and the United Kingdom, as they speak out against China's human rights violations, the bullying of democratic countries and efforts to suppress freedom of expression. The coalition could also include other democracies from South Asia, Latin America, Africa and other countries, as long as these states are willing to stand up for democracy and human rights, even if there is a risk of offending Beijing.
This ruling coalition would be a little less than the global alliance of democracies proposed by Pompeo. Like the geostrategic coalition, it could initially include a “coalitions of will” approach to key issues, with the hope of working towards more institutionalized collaboration over time. This coalition could, for example, improve the resilience of the democratic world to operations with political influence by China by sharing insights into the tactics Beijing has used against Taiwan, Australia and others, and by coordinating multilateral responses. This coalition could also coordinate sanctions and diplomatic penalties for the horrific abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Last but not least, it could express its collective strength to resist Chinese takeovers of key international organizations – such as the United States' Human Rights Council – that Beijing uses to defend its authoritarian rule domestically and project its autocratic influence abroad.
The strategic value of this type of governance coalition would be considerable. By highlighting shared political values, this could help attract new partners. Many European countries have no interest or ability to balance China in the South China Sea, but they can and will take action against Beijing's human rights abuses and coercive tactics against democracies. This coalition would also help put the CCP on the defensive by exposing and punishing the most obnoxious aspects of its behavior. After all, the formation of such a coalition would underscore audiences around the world that this is not simply a power struggle between China and the United States. Rather, it is a struggle for the future of the international system and the way people are governed.
Of course, it will be difficult to form a government coalition. The main democracies see the extent of the threat from China differently. And a coalition of this nature would likely exclude key members of the geostrategic coalition like Vietnam and raise difficult questions about how relapsed democracies like the Philippines can be used. Last but not least, America's ability to lead an explicitly democratic coalition has been increasingly questioned, given that President Donald Trump was so indifferent to the fate of democratic values at home and abroad.
However, these obstacles are not insurmountable. The United States managed to combine values with realpolitik during the Cold War. Es führte einen zutiefst ideologischen Kampf gegen die Sowjetunion, während es immer noch mit freundlichen Autokraten und sogar freundlichen Kommunisten zusammenarbeitete. Ein Post-Trump-Amerika könnte sich wieder darauf konzentrieren, die demokratische Welt zu versammeln. In der Tat hat der gewählte Präsident Biden bereits in seinem ersten Amtsjahr vorgeschlagen, einen Gipfel der Demokratien der Welt einzuberufen. Trotz der Schwierigkeiten bei der Koordinierung einer geografisch und geopolitisch unterschiedlichen Gruppe von Nationen haben starke ideologische Bedrohungen wie die von China den Vorteil, demokratische Nationen daran zu erinnern, dass sie getrennt hängen werden, wenn sie nicht zusammenhalten.
Die ankommende Biden-Administration scheint dies alles zu verstehen. Ely Ratner, einer der führenden Berater von Biden für Asien, hat festgestellt: "Es gibt einen Technologiewettbewerb, einen Militärwettbewerb, einen Wirtschaftswettbewerb, einen ideologischen Wettbewerb und einen diplomatischen Wettbewerb." Biden hat eine Prämie auf die Entwicklung einer Wettbewerbsstrategie gelegt, die eher multilateral als aggressiv einseitig ist, insbesondere wenn es um Themen wie Technologie und Zusammenarbeit zwischen gleichgesinnten Ländern geht. Es besteht jedoch eine größere Unsicherheit darüber, ob die Vereinigten Staaten die dringend erforderlichen militärischen Investitionen tätigen werden, um die geostrategische Koalition im westlichen Pazifik zu stützen, und die politischen Investitionen, die erforderlich sind, um tiefere Handels- und Investitionsbeziehungen zu Mitgliedern der künftigen Wirtschaftskoalition aufzubauen Gleichzeitig zeigt er die Geschicklichkeit, die erforderlich ist, um einen wettbewerbsorientierten Ansatz in diesen Fragen mit den Bemühungen um eine sichere Zusammenarbeit beim Klimawandel und anderen grenzüberschreitenden Bedrohungen zu verbinden.
Die gute Nachricht ist, dass die Vereinigten Staaten über alle Instrumente verfügen, um die Gefahren zu bewältigen, die sich aus der wachsenden Durchsetzungskraft der KPCh-Führer ergeben. Die kritischste davon ist die Fähigkeit, Länder in einer Vielzahl von Fragen auf ihre Seite zu ziehen. Aber Washington wird scheitern, wenn es einen einheitlichen Ansatz für den Aufbau einer Koalition verfolgt. Obwohl Teile des chinesisch-amerikanischen Kampfes, insbesondere die militärischen und ideologischen Rivalitäten, deutliche Echos des Kalten Krieges aufweisen, ist die heutige Welt zunehmend multipolar und die Konkurrenz hochgradig mehrdimensional. Die Herausforderung, die China darstellt, erfordert eine konzertierte, multilaterale Reaktion. Das globale Umfeld und die Natur der chinesischen Macht machen es jedoch schwieriger, diese konzertierte Reaktion zu beschwören als während des Kalten Krieges.
Die harte Wahrheit ist, dass sich Länder auf der ganzen Welt möglicherweise nicht in allen Fragen auf Amerikas Seite stellen, nur weil sich die KPCh auf zwanghaftes und abscheuliches Verhalten einlässt. Verschiedene Länder werden sich zu unterschiedlichen Zeiten zu unterschiedlichen Themen zusammenschließen. Eine konzertierte multilaterale Aktion wird nur stattfinden, indem eine Reihe sich überschneidender Koalitionen gebildet und die Länder aufgefordert werden, in den Fragen zu handeln, die sie am meisten betreffen. Dies wird eine neue Herausforderung sein, aber Washington muss eine ältere Tradition des kreativen Multilateralismus wiederbeleben, die es offenbar kürzlich aufgegeben hat. Die Welt wird mehrere Koalitionen brauchen, um die schlimmsten möglichen Folgen des Aufstiegs Chinas zu bewältigen – und keine dieser Koalitionen wird ohne die konstruktive Führung der Vereinigten Staaten erfolgreich sein.