U.S. President Joe Biden entered office with a sweeping vision and an urgent need to revitalize the country’s alliance and partner system, whose major purpose is to outcompete China, which has been considered the gravest, core challenge that will face the United States in the decades to come.
In the eyes of the Biden administration, alliances and partners are influence multipliers and unique assets for meeting today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, especially when it comes to how to deal with China. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out, “Our combined weight is much harder for China to ignore” — implying an intention to use collective strength to counterbalance China at a time when the U.S. feels the pain of internal weakness, both from the pandemic and thorny long-term structural obstacles and tensions within American society.
Since taking office, Biden has avoided dealing with China directly, under the excuse of a China policy review, while interacting vigorously with allies and partners on the subject. According to the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, U.S. democratic alliances present a common front, produce a unified vision and hold countries like China to account. These core alliances include NATO and countries such as Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea, while the U.S. said it will also double down on building partnerships throughout the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Western Hemisphere, because “our strength is multiplied” when addressing common challenges, sharing costs and widening the circle of cooperation.
The Strategic Competition Act of 2021, introduced in Congress, lists specific parameters to jointly handle China with allies and partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific but also in other regions. Under the bill, which embodies a somewhat mainstream bipartisan consensus on China, three layers of allies and partners need to be strengthened and further explored in the Indio-Pacific.
First are the treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Second is the QUAD, through which the U.S. intends to promote "a free, open, inclusive, resilient Indo-Pacific that is characterized by democracy, rule of law and market-driven economic growth,” as well as "free from undue influence and coercion.” Third is ASEAN, which is now at the crux of U.S. competition with China. ASEAN has become the largest trading partner with China. It is also a close neighbor, with sour territorial disputes still simmering that can be taken advantage of by the U.S. The bill centers on the intensifying maritime controversy between China and ASEAN countries by using such rhetoric as urging “all parties” to cease activities that undermine stability and “demilitarize islands,” a clear reference to China.
Beyond the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. also wants to strengthen alliances and partnerships with Europe and “like-minded” countries around the world to "address significant diplomatic, economic and military challenges posed by the PRC,” with the intention to mobilize the most possible leverage to beat down China under the guise of deterring “military aggression,” promoting the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, fostering private-led economic development and human rights and countering “predatory economic practices as well as disinformation.”
The U.S. attaches a lot of importance to such forums as the G7, European Union and NATO and will try to form a common approach on China under the slogan of "strengthening the international rules-based order.” In March, the U.S.-EU dialogue on China was relaunched for this purpose. And in the following G7 and NATO settings, China became a central topic. Communiques from the G7 have not only criticized China’s Hong Kong policy but also expressed strong support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations like the WHO and World Health Assembly.
The U.S. is also looking for specific commitments from the G7 for cooperation on fighting “economic coercion” through investment based on the Western model of development growth that targets China’s Belt and Road Initiative, securing supply chains and blocking Chinese 5G. European countries, such as Britain and France, have increased their maritime involvement in the Indo-Pacific region, showing concerted efforts promoted by the U.S.
Biden’s grand alliance effort is certainly harmful to China’s interests. And negative results have already surfaced in China’s relations with the rest of the world. The EU halted approval for its bilateral investment agreement with China. Japan and Australia, escorted by the U.S., have hardened their attitudes toward China. South Korea, once cautious about being seen as allied with an anti-China camp, is now showing interest in joining the technological and supply chain cooperation under the QUAD. On the other hand, it’s never easy to expel the No. 2 economy in the world — one as influential as China — from the international arena.
U.S. officials are confident they can make common cause with Europe on issues such as the Uygurs and Hong Kong and on economic issues involving access to China’s market. But it will be harder to agree on technology issues, such as 5G. Japan and South Korea may cooperate more on technology and supply chains, but will be mute on human right issues.
For the developing world, the U.S.-led high-quality infrastructure alternative has yet to materialize because of inadequate funding, too many preconditions and lack of feasibility for local situations. Although the G7 ministers had harsh words against China, they refrained from spelling out concrete steps for confronting Beijing. Countries such as Italy and Germany were particularly concerned about the potential harm it may incur by “offending Beijing.”
Given all this, no matter how grand Biden’s alliance effort may be, he has to set policies based on the common denominator, which is China. He must engage and let China sit at the table and “play by the rules.”
This position of coexistence is the starting point for any benign competition, if that is possible, between China and the U.S. in the days to come.