Much analysis of the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy understandably focuses on a core imperative that it articulates: “We will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over [China] while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia.” Xi Jinping has secured a norm-defying third term at the helm of China, and the war between Russia and Ukraine has entered its ninth month. Perhaps its most important judgment, however, has not received the attention that it merits: the document observes that the administration “will avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of strategic competition and will continue to engage countries on their own terms.” There are at least four reasons why heeding that advice will be essential for the United States to manage its relationships with China and Russia.
First, its allies and partners will not always fully share its strategic perspectives and priorities. India, for example, is increasingly aligning with the United States on China policy, bilaterally and under the aegis of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It has been more circumspect in dealing with Russia, though, in part because of its longstanding energy and arms ties with Moscow.
Germany offers a converse example. It is fundamentally reorienting its defense policy and moving to diversify its energy partners in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, it is unlikely to go as far the United States in challenging China’s technological ambitions. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that Germany “must continue to do business with China,” and both Germany’s direct investment in and trade deficit with China reached record highs the first half of this year.
The United States will find it difficult to assemble a unified democratic coalition that principally defines itself in opposition to China and Russia. Instead, it will have to continue building out a patchwork of groupings—the Quad, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, for example—that reflect varying types and degrees of alignment.
The second reason that the United States should not lean too heavily into strategic competition is that its allies and partners will bristle if it pressures them too hard to align their orientations with its own or conveys the impression that it regards them principally as instruments of its efforts against China and Russia.
In November 2019, when Der Spiegel asked Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to comment on the view of some Western observers that India is a counterbalance Chinese influence in Asia, he replied: “I find the idea of being someone else’s pawn in some ‘Great Game’ terribly condescending. . . . I’m in it because of my own ambitions.” More recently, at September’s UN General Assembly meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong declared that “small and medium sized nations” such as hers “are more than just supporting players in a grand drama of geopolitics.”
The United States will be much likelier to accrue enduring influence if its allies and partners recalibrate their foreign policies of their own volition—in response to Chinese and Russian missteps, not US exhortations.
Consider that Washington had achieved only modest results in contesting Beijing’s influence prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020; witness its efforts to dissuade allies and partners from joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, and allowing Huawei to build out their 5G networks.
What has changed over the past three years? China has unnerved major democratic powers in Europe and Asia with a series of actions, including peddling conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, imposing economic penalties on Australia for supporting an independent inquiry into those origins, undercutting Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status, intensifying its coercion of Taiwan, launching an incursion across its disputed boundary with India, and declining to condemn Russian aggression.
As a result, the European Union has halted the ratification of a major investment agreement with China; NATO now assesses that its “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values”; and the Quad proceeds with clear momentum—to name but a few consequences. While China’s ties with Russia are deepening, most of Beijing’s relationships with other major powers are significantly more strained today than they were before the pandemic.
Similarly, the United States had been struggling to cultivate transatlantic unity vis-à-vis Russia as late as the beginning of this year. Indeed, some European allies and partners were initially skeptical of the US intelligence community’s judgment that Moscow was preparing to launch a full-fledged invasion.
Had it not taken that fateful step, there is good reason to believe that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would have proceeded and that America’s NATO allies would still have been focused on the manner of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Instead, Russia has sabotaged its relations with the West, unnerved Central Asia, strained its ties with Japan and South Korea, and rendered itself more beholden to China, all while undercutting its medium- to long-run energy leverage and cutting itself off from capital and technology that it will need to sustain its growth amid a declining demographic outlook.
The approach of the G20 summit in Bali and the APEC summit in Bangkok highlights a third reason to eschew a foreign policy that revolves too narrowly around strategic competition: the framework has little resonance across the developing world, where memories of the Cold War have left a searing imprint.
The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy nods to that reality: “Some parts of the world are uneasy with the competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies. We understand these concerns.” Across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, countries are contending not only with the lingering economic effects of COVID-19, but also with the disruptions that Russian aggression has caused to food and energy markets. The World Bank estimates that the pandemic has halted the progress that the world had made in ending extreme poverty since 1990, with the war threatening to make the situation even worse. Confronting such challenging circumstances, few developing countries have the luxury to prioritize—or the inclination to participate in—strategic competition against China and Russia, whatever opinions they might have of those two powers’ political systems and foreign policies. They are far more focused on resuscitating their economies, mitigating the effects of climate change, and building resilience against future pandemics.
Fourth, and finally, focusing exclusively on strategic competition could undercut the United States’ ability or perhaps even willingness to consider cooperative possibilities with China and Russia.
While those possibilities may be few and far between for now, especially with Moscow, Washington should continue pursuing them—not out of misplaced altruism or wishful thinking, but abiding self-interest. US military and intelligence officials need to have open lines of communication with their Chinese and Russian counterparts to forestall armed confrontations that could escalate to the nuclear level. In addition, while the United States can make considerable headway in managing transnational challenges such as pandemic disease, climate change, and nuclear proliferation by working with like-minded countries, lasting progress is likely to prove elusive without Chinese and Russian involvement. Washington has nothing to fear from making diplomatic overtures so long as it makes clear that its coalition-building efforts around those challenges will continue whether or not Beijing and Moscow reciprocate.
That strategic frictions with China and Russia will continue to intensify is a given. Paradoxically, though, the United States may be best positioned to manage them if it does not overemphasize strategic competition in its interactions with allies and partners, whether in the community of advanced industrial democracies or the Global South. As the National Security Strategy explains, it must pursue a foreign policy that is rooted “not in terms of what we are against but what we are for.”
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro-Geopolitics practice. He is the author of America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons