Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series

December 16, 2020

Engage China from a position of strength to cooperate on shared interests and incorporate China into an adapted rules-based system

By Jeffrey Cimmino and Matthew Kroenig

As they compete, likeminded allies and partners should look for opportunities to collaborate with China on areas of mutual interests. While they impose costs on China for its threatening behavior, they should also demonstrate the benefits of more fully participating in a rules-based global system, with the ultimate aim of China becoming a cooperative member of an adapted system.

Maintain open lines of communication with China

Likeminded allies and partners should maintain open lines of communication with China without compromising fundamental values. There are benefits to maintaining dialogue, even with adversarial nations. Dialogue can serve to better define conflicts of interests, as an intelligence-collection mechanism, and to identify potential areas of cooperation. Dialogue also facilitates the creation of interpersonal bonds.

Washington will face a dilemma about how to engage China. Should it engage bilaterally as part of a Group of Two (G2) that excludes allies as Beijing often prefers, or as part of a broader framework that includes allies and partners? The answer is that Washington should err on the side of inclusive frameworks. It should prioritize the coordination of positions among likeminded states and approach Beijing as a unified block. The CCP prefers to divide and conquer, picking off allies one by one, and this approach will deprive the CCP of this source of coercive leverage.

At the elite level, engagement can occur in existing multilateral frameworks, including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the G20. But, the rules-based system needs to be adapted to provide and empower inclusive frameworks. Just as the G7 should be elevated and expanded into a D-10, the G20 should be empowered as the more inclusive forum that brings together democracies and powerful autocracies, such as China. The G20 should be given greater authority as a global coordinating body on a broader set of security, economic, and governance issues.

In addition, new mechanisms for dialogue should be created. China complains, with good reason, that existing security frameworks in the Indo-Pacific are aligned against China. A new framework for talks on security in Asia could include the United States and its formal treaty allies (Japan, Australia, and South Korea), with China and Russia, in a more regularized form to discuss a broader range of security issues in Asia.

Finally, as NATO shifts to address China, there should be a new NATO-China Council to shape a more constructive relationship between China and the West. This council would turn the Alliance’s attention to China’s threats to NATO interests in Europe, the Arctic, and the Indo-Pacific. The council would bring together all allied members in a dialogue with China to inhibit China’s efforts to engage bilaterally and to demonstrate the unified resolve of the Alliance. As appropriate, this group can be expanded to include NATO’s global partners, including Japan and Australia. This dialogue could yield a more cooperative relationship between the West and China by alerting Beijing to the potential costs of defying a unified transatlantic community.

In these forums, participants should discuss the full range of global and regional security and economic issues, as well as the rules and norms for a revitalized and adapted rules-based international system.

Among mass publics, travel, educational exchange, and other people-to-people interactions should also be encouraged, consistent with national security interests and the personal safety of those involved.

Leverage China to pursue areas of common interests

Likeminded allies and partners should continue to seek cooperation with China on areas of common interest. The “one-world” problems for which such cooperation is possible include: the global economy, arms control and nonproliferation, global public health, the environment, infrastructure, peacekeeping as humanitarian assistance, and food security.

The Global Economy. There remain areas for cooperation between likeminded allies and partners and China in the global economy. While there should be a selective decoupling for economic exchange that threatens national security interests, and for which the CCP is engaging in unfair trade practices, they can continue trade and investment in other areas. China’s purchases of US Treasury bonds benefit both countries, and can continue. Likeminded allies and partners and China also both have an interest in helping the world economy recover from the pandemic-induced downturn. They can use the G20 as a venue to coordinate stimulus packages and debt relief to the developing world.

Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Likeminded allies and partners should continue to engage China on issues of arms control and nuclear nonproliferation. The Trump administration made pursuing trilateral arms control with Russia and China a priority and, while it failed to entice China to participate, the United States and Russia (and perhaps Britain and France) should pursue strategic security talks with Beijing as a next step. Moreover, China retains an interest in halting the spread of nuclear weapons, and likeminded allies and partners should continue to work with Beijing to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and address specific cases of nuclear proliferation.

Public Health. China and the United States have shown in the past that they can cooperate on public-health matters and mounting an effective response to disease outbreaks will require them to do so moving forward. The CCP behaved irresponsibly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting and delaying the delivery of information to the WHO, punishing doctors for attempting to speak about the novel coronavirus, and blaming other countries after their missteps helped enable this global health disaster. Managing public-health crises will require the CCP to be more open, transparent, and accountable in its handling of outbreaks. The United States, meanwhile, must show it is willing to lead and work with others. Likeminded allies and partners should engage China as part of a global effort to bolster global public health and defeat the pandemic. They should also engage with China about how to best reform the global public-health system to prevent a recurrence of the COVID-19 tragedy.

The Environment. Likeminded allies and partners should continue to engage China on environmental issues. China has spoiled its air, water, and land, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other Western environmental agencies and groups can continue to help the CCP to clean up its natural resources. China is a global leader in green technology and renewable energy, and it can supply these capabilities to other nations looking to improve their environmental standards. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China must be part of any effective solution to climate change. China has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060 and likeminded allies and partners should hold them to that commitment. The United States continues to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions due to the transformative effects of the shale-gas revolution, but it should reengage multilateral efforts to address climate change.

Infrastructure Investment. Likeminded allies and partners should engage China on global infrastructure investment. As argued above, they should offer alternatives to China’s BRI investments. They can also continue to work with China through multilateral institutions with high standards for quality and transparency. In addition, Western nations that have not already done so should join the Chinese-led AIIB and engage in the BRI, with clear conditions. Such a strategy of conditional engagement could be a way of exerting pressure on China and pushing it to adjust its behavior and practices to align them with widely agreed-upon international standards. The example of Japan is a case in point. Japan made it clear that any official involvement with Chinese infrastructure projects would be conditional, dependent on whether the project satisfies “quality infrastructure” principles. Another attractive mechanism for such engagement is third-party market cooperation (3PMC), in which Western firms work with Chinese firms on projects in BRI countries. This mechanism could incentivize Chinese companies to converge on Western best practices for corporate social-responsibility, environmental standards, labor practices, and debt sustainability. Improving the transparency of deals as they are being negotiated will put leaders and publics in BRI target nations in a better position to demand fair terms, reshaping the projects in a positive direction.

Peacekeeping. China has become a major contributor to global peacekeeping operations. It is the tenth-largest provider of troops and the second-largest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget. In 2020, it had forces deployed in Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere. Still, it has fallen short of pledged contributions. Likeminded allies and partners should welcome this contribution to global security and encourage Beijing to meet its pledged targets in this domain.

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. The Chinese PLA has played a growing role in overseas humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief (HA/DR) missions over the past two decades. Recent notable actions include the provision of relief for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the 2015 Nepal earthquake, and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. At times, however, PLA has disregarded best practices for participation in such operations. Likeminded allies and partners should engage with the CCP on this issue, encourage China’s participation in HA/DR missions, and challenge China to rise to global standards.

Food Security. China is a leading food producer and investor in agricultural research and development. It produces 20 percent of the world’s food supply and narrowly outpaces the United States as the world’s leading spender on agricultural R&D. It has made agriculture a central element of its engagement in Africa, and includes food aid as part of its trade and investment packages with developing countries. At the same time, the CCP is a paltry contributor to multilateral organizations responsible for food aid. It contributes only one tenth of US levels to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Likeminded allies and partners should engage China through multilateral organizations on issues of food security and challenge Beijing to increase its contributions to these organizations.

Over time, work with China to revitalize and adapt a rules-based system

Over time, likeminded allies and partners should seek to work with China to help it become a cooperative member of a revitalized and adapted rules-based system. This can be accomplished by attempting to engage China to join in designing the rules of the system. The areas of greatest opportunity are in domains in which the rules are not yet clearly defined, such as emerging technology, space, and cyberspace. These discussions may be difficult at first and may not gain much, if any, traction initially, but they may be worth the effort if the end result is a revitalized and adapted rules-based system that includes the world’s second-largest economic and military power as a cooperative member.

Likeminded allies and partners should engage China on developing common standards for emerging technology. This should include frameworks for the responsible use of AI. In the military domain especially, the United States and China should discuss the ethical boundaries of these technologies. Furthermore, likeminded allies and partners and China should explore opportunities to collaborate on developing applications of AI that are mutually beneficial, such as for healthcare. AI has useful applications for diagnosing illnesses and discovering cures and treatments, which could be furthered via cooperation. AI can also be applied to monitoring climate change, increasing energy efficiency, and other issues on which all countries stand to gain from working together.

Moreover, in recent years, the Internet has begun dividing into competing spheres. Whereas China favors Internet governance rooted in national sovereignty and close control of information flows, likeminded allies and partners favor an open, accessible, freer model for the Internet. The CCP is pushing for its model in multilateral forums, while Chinese corporations bolster the ability of other autocracies to control the Internet. The BRI also contains a “Digital Silk Road” initiative geared toward exporting China’s model of managing the Internet. Likeminded allies and partners should resolve their own differences regarding Internet governance and engage China on cyberspace in multilateral forums to develop clear global frameworks for the Internet.

China is also rapidly increasing its space presence in both the civil and military domains. It has more than one hundred and twenty intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites—only the United States has more. China’s space capabilities threaten Western satellites used for communication, navigation, and ISR, and China continues to invest heavily in counterspace technology.

As China has boosted its activity in space, the United States has engaged Beijing in bilateral talks about space-related issues. The two countries should repeat and continue the Space Security Talks and engage on issues of space sustainability and civil space cooperation by continuing the US-China Civil Space Dialogue. Likeminded allies and partners and China should also work to develop global norms for outer space, geared toward reducing orbital debris and developing confidence-building measures to clarify perceptions and diminish the risk of conflict in space.

More broadly, likeminded allies and partners should seek to engage Chinese officials to formulate a common vision for a broader, more inclusive rules-based system based on mutually acceptable rules and norms. Chinese leaders often profess to support principles of a rules-based system, and Beijing has made commitments through treaties and agreements to uphold international norms. Drawing inspiration from the Helsinki Process, the goal of these talks should be to negotiate and adopt a new charter of principles for an adapted rules-based system.

To be sure, Beijing may be wary given the Helsinki Process’s role in prompting greater openness in the Soviet Union. Through creative engagement, however, China may see the benefits of discussions on a new charter of common principles for a rules-based system. This process would provide an outlet for China to pursue its legitimate interests in ways that are consistent with international norms. Of course, it is possible that Beijing could simply sign on to a charter of principles as a propaganda effort without any real intention to abide by them. Nevertheless, by incentivizing Beijing to make such commitments, likeminded allies can use such a charter to hold China to account for violations of such norms. They could link cooperation in certain areas, such as in trade, to Beijing’s compliance with commitments to uphold human rights norms. Over time, the hope would be that the Chinese government would fully embrace the norms and principles espoused in the charter.

Image: Chinese and US flags fly along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House in Washington January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo