It is no secret that the relationship between the United States and China will define the twenty-first century. That relationship promises to be a rocky one. The Biden administration has identified strategic competition between the United States and China as a key national security concern. This point was emphasized by the new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, in a February 4, 2021 press briefing and will likely feature prominently in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy. Aspects of this competition permeate nearly every facet of geopolitics, but what are the implications for alliance politics in a world defined by competition between the United States and China? In great power competition, alliances matter as much as anything else. And, as previous great power competitions demonstrate, alliance shifts can lead to instability and even open conflict between competitors. For the United States to maintain the upper hand in a worldwide strategic competition with China, alliances play a central role.
NOTHING COULD BE MORE DEVASTATING TO AMERICA’S SECURITY IN THE LONG TERM THAN A HEIGHTENED CHINESE PRESENCE IN THE AMERICAS.
Three main areas of concern exist for the United States. First, following the oldest rule in politics, the United States will need to secure its base in the face of increasing Chinese pressure. This means maintaining collaborative relations in the Western Hemisphere and preventing China from securing alliances there. Nothing could be more devastating to America’s security in the long term than a heightened Chinese presence in the Americas. Second, the United States needs to recommit to its most important existing alliances so that they do not slip from Washington to Beijing. China seeks either to detach American allies from their partnership with Washington or to marginalize them. Finally, for the United States to play the great power game, it must do all it can to avoid isolation among the great powers. This means paying attention to the critical partnership with the European Union, but also thinking ahead to strategic partnership with India as the number of great powers in the world expands.
AMERICAN POWER IS UNDERPINNED BY SECURITY AT HOME AND A LACK OF COMPETITION FROM OTHER GREAT POWERS IN ITS BACKYARD.
China’s quest for a proverbial place in the sun has made it an active force in practically every corner of the world. From an American strategic perspective, China’s inroads in the Caribbean and South America are particularly concerning. American power is underpinned by security at home and a lack of competition from other great powers in its backyard. This has been the case since America’s victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War and Europe’s subsequent concession to American power in the western hemisphere. The Soviet Union made some noise in the western hemisphere during the Cold War, but through economic influence, blind realpolitik which involved sometimes supporting atrocity prone right-wing regimes and the occasional coup—some successful others not—and one enormously effective naval quarantine of Cuba in 1962 the United States asserted its control of the hemisphere.
China is slowly starting to challenge that reality. As early as 2011, the International Monetary Fund could publish papers describing the “The Growing Economic Presence of China in the Caribbean.” Today, China’s engagement only continues to grow across a wide spectrum: economically, militarily, and diplomatically, from infrastructure projects and arms sales to the purchase of natural resources. As was the situation during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and at the close of the preceding century against the old European empires, the United States will have to be prepared to fight China for economic, political, and military influence in Latin America.
BEIJING IS DRAWING CLOSER TO THE EUROPEAN UNION AND RUSSIA WHILE THE UNITED STATES IS INCREASINGLY SIDELINED FROM NEW INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENTS.
As for allies, China is both looking to build its own partnerships and to disrupt American ones. China aims to surpass Japan as the dominant economic force in Asia, while tying its neighbors more closely to it. It is working to co-opt the Philippines away from the influence of the United States. Chinese policy is also aimed at isolating the United States diplomatically and economically, and undermining its position within international institutions, although it is hard to imagine Chinese actions being more effective in this regard than those of America itself. Take, for example America’s withdrawal from the twelve nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. This created a vacuum that China swiftly filled with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in November 2020. China is also hard at work creating alternative institutions to those created by the United States after the Second World War, which retain a strong degree of American leadership.
China wants to push the United States out of Europe. China may not be able to completely replace the United States in Europe in terms of investment, trade, or security cooperation, but it can certainly make America less critical for Europe in all these areas. That, in and of itself, would be a big win. Beijing is drawing closer to the European Union and Russia while the United States is increasingly sidelined from new international agreements. In March 2019, Italy became the first major European country to join the Belt and Road Initiative. In December 2020, the European Union and China announced a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. In stark contrast, negotiations for an EU-U.S. trade compact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership came to a halt in October 2016 after 15 rounds of talks when President Trump suspended talks after coming into office. In April 2018, the European Commission dismissed them as “obsolete and no longer relevant” adding the insult of redundant language to geopolitical injury.
IN THE CONTEXT OF GREAT POWER COMPETITION, NOTHING IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE ATTITUDES OF THE GREAT POWERS THEMSELVES.
As a complement to its European successes, China has recently achieved even closer cooperation with Russia. China is investing $55 billion in a pipeline linking Russian gas fields to northern Chinese industrial cities; over the next three decades, Russian gas exports to China may be worth $400 billion. Russia’s share of yuan reserves has steadily increased. Trade between Russia and China nearly touched $110 billion in 2019 with a goal of $200 billion by 2024 and while this may be a drop in the bucket for China, it represents more than 15% of Russian trade. In 2018, the two nations even conducted their first joint military drills and did so again September 2020 during the “Kavkaz 2020” exercise.
In the context of great power competition, nothing is as important as the attitudes of the great powers themselves. This must seem blatantly obvious, but the United States must prioritize collaboration and partnership with the European Union. The United States needs to restore trust and recommit itself to the transatlantic relationship economically, diplomatically, and in the security sphere. Simultaneously, the United States should prioritize its diplomatic and economic relations with traditional allies like the Philippines and Japan while reaching out to new Asia partners like Vietnam and Indonesia seeking opportunities for investment, trade, and cooperation. Japan, as the world’s third largest economy, is essential to great power competition with China. It is a close American ally and a financial powerhouse with a history of problematic relations with China. More than any country, Japan stands to lose from Chinese regional hegemony. Good relations with Japan should be at the top of the president’s foreign policy agenda.
IF THE UNITED STATES IS SERIOUS ABOUT A STRATEGIC COMPETITION WITH CHINA, IT MUST REMEMBER THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF ALLIANCES. INDIA REMAINS A STRONG CONTENDER TO JOIN THE UNITED STATES, CHINA, RUSSIA, AND THE EUROPEAN UNION AT THE HEAD TABLE OF GREAT POWERS.
Just as critically, the United States needs to invest in its relationship with India. India was absent from both the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Kavkaz 2020 exercise. Two weeks before the scheduled start date of the military exercise, India announced its withdrawal. India’s decision, spurred by an increasingly tense relationship with China is good news for the United States. From an American perspective, India should be at the heart of strategies to contain and undermine the expansion of Chinese power through Asia. After China, India is the second most populous nation on earth. It borders China, but its geographical position is also critical for other reasons. India has the ability to project power and influence into southeast Asia. It can compete for economic, political, and military influence with China in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Chinese hegemony in Asia relies on India, willingly or unwilling, playing a secondary role. India also sits at the very heart of the Maritime Silk Road, controlling access to the Gulf and the Suez Canal.
If the United States is serious about a strategic competition with China, it must remember the critical importance of alliances. India remains a strong contender to join the United States, China, Russia, and the European Union at the head table of great powers. China’s problematic relations with India provide an opening for the United States to exploit. All too often, the United States is reactive, rather than proactive in its competition with China. Establishing closer ties with India is a significant opportunity for the United States to act first. After all, in today’s great power competition, the iron-clad rule of the iron chancellor endures: in a world of five great powers, one must “try to be à trois.”
Andrew Novo is Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are entirely his and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
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