Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series December 16, 2020

Elements of the strategy

By Jeffrey Cimmino and Matthew Kroenig

To achieve these goals, this section of the paper proposes a three-part strategy for China. First, likeminded allies and partners should strengthen themselves, their alliances, and the rules-based system for a new, more competitive era. Second, likeminded allies and partners must defend their interests and the rules-based system from the China challenge, and impose costs on the CCP when it violates widely agreed-upon standards. Third, likeminded allies and partners should engage with China from a position of strength to cooperate on areas of mutual interests and, over time, to incorporate China into a revitalized and adapted rules-based system.

By likeminded allies and partners, the authors mean several categories of leading states. The United States remains the world’s most powerful country and is able to catalyze a broad global coalition to address shared challenges. It must, therefore, take a leadership role. The active participation of other powerful democracies is also of critical importance, including the other nations of the D-10 (Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the EU), and NATO allies. Other formal and informal partners (such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and others) will also be helpful in executing various elements of this strategy. 

Washington should lead this effort not out of a utopian desire to transform the world for the better, but because it advances the United States’ narrowly defined self-interests. The post-1945, US-led rules-based system led to higher levels of peace and prosperity for the American people. Likewise, the average American will likely be safer, richer, and freer in a revitalized, US-led, rules-based system than under any plausible alternative. The most likely alternative would be the division of the world into two separate and competing blocs, led by Washington and Beijing, respectively. Such an outcome would hurt the pocketbook of the average American as the global economy becomes increasingly fragmented. It would threaten US freedoms as the CCP, with an enlarged autocratic sphere of influence, would be in a stronger position to interfere in US democratic practices at home. It would also threaten the security of the United States, as a China that dominates its own region militarily might be emboldened to initiate a large-scale conflict that could draw in US forces, and would be better able to project its military power into North America.

The China challenge is daunting, but a historical perspective shows that likeminded allies and partners are up to the task. On multiple occasions over the course of the twentieth century, they overcame revisionist, autocratic great-power competitors. Still China, for all its repressiveness and assertiveness, has a distinct character and poses a different kind of authoritarian challenge. At present, the leading democracies retain a large preponderance of power over China.

In executing this strategy, relations between likeminded allies and partners on one hand, and China on the other, will be characterized by a mix of cooperation and competition. Some might argue that leading democracies must definitively choose whether they will work with or against China. In international politics, however, mixed relationships are commonplace. Likeminded allies and partners should pursue inclusive cooperation with Beijing where desirable, while also being prepared to work around or against China when necessary. This latter path will often allow for deeper collaboration among likeminded states.

Smaller countries, therefore, will not be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing, as not even Washington will be making such a stark choice. Rather, smaller powers will be encouraged to strengthen cooperation with the United States and its allies and partners, even as they are encouraged to collaborate with Beijing in areas in which the CCP is engaging in responsible behavior, consistent with international standards.