This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union and the German Federal Foreign Office. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or the German Federal Foreign Office.
The authors would like to thank Joel Kesselbrenner for his contributions to this paper.
In recent months, China’s relations with the United States and its European and Asian allies have deteriorated significantly. While engagement with Beijing continues across many different areas, these efforts have produced little in terms of concrete results. It is all too easy to reach the unfortunate conclusion that talking to Beijing is a waste of time and effort. Over the past four decades, the United States and its European and Asian allies pursued a strategy with China based on the assumption that cooperation and engagement would encourage China to become a responsible stakeholder in a rules-based international system. On the contrary, Beijing has grown more assertive in its efforts to subvert those rules and norms that it feels constrict and constrain China’s global ambitions. Therefore, like-minded allies and partners will need to defend against China’s violations of international norms, impose costs on irresponsible behavior, and strengthen themselves, their alliances, and the institutions of the current world order to be able to compete effectively and uphold liberal values against China’s continued pressure.
Nevertheless, the future stability, and even survival, of the rules-based order will remain threatened if China, the world’s second-largest economic and military power, remains outside the system or is actively attempting to undermine it. Moreover, the international community faces several issues of major global importance—most of all, climate change and public health—that require at least some continued collaboration between China and the democratic allies. Constructive engagement remains an integral part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with China. In the short term, it enables all parties to benefit from the gains on issues of mutual interest while, in the long run, it holds out hope that the international community can still come together to tackle problems of global scale and ensure continued security and prosperity. The goal is to keep China grounded in the international system by encouraging it to play a constructive role, particularly in areas in which its interests align with the democratic allies, or those in which Chinese policies and actions have a significant impact on global affairs, even while defending the system against Beijing’s transgressions. Short of that, continued engagement with Beijing, on matters both great and small, will help to ensure competition between the United States and China will not erupt into more hostile confrontation that risks global peace and stability.
The ongoing war in Ukraine highlights both the dangers Beijing presents to the current world order, and the critical need for continued engagement between the United States, its allies, and China. Amid Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has provided meaningful diplomatic support for Moscow and shown hostility toward NATO and its approach to the war. That has heightened fears that, in the immediate term, Beijing would help Moscow evade the sanctions imposed by the allied democracies in response to the invasion and, over the longer term, China and Russia will employ their declared “no limits” partnership to undermine the current world order and promote authoritarian political values in its place. Preventing such an outcome through continued, candid diplomacy with China thus has taken on even greater importance in light of these emerging and potential threats.
The United States and its European and Asian partners must also recognize that the Chinese government, or at least its current leadership, may perceive certain elements of the rules-based order as inherently hostile. Because such a system is founded on the rule of law and liberal political, economic, and social principles, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may believe undercutting the pillars of that order and altering it to better represent authoritarian ideals and interests is necessary for modern China to thrive on the international stage. In that sense, the United States, Europe, and their allies must be careful not to allow a continued desire for engagement to offer China greater opportunities to undermine the rules-based order. They should also be prepared to uphold key norms of the international order even without China’s support, and preserve that order against active Chinese hostility if the process of engagement fails to produce positive results.
The post-World War II, rules-based international system, led by the United States and its democratic partners and allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, has produced unprecedented levels of peace, prosperity, and freedom. But, this system is coming under increasing strain from autocratic states, especially China and Russia, which have become more active in challenging core tenets of the rules-based system.
Increasingly, China is employing its growing economic power as a means of coercing or enticing other states to comply with its foreign policy priorities or principles of international relations. In response to Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into COVID-19’s origins, for example, Chinese authorities imposed severe economic penalties on Australian businesses and the Chinese embassy in Canberra released a list of demands that the Australians needed to fulfill in order to improve relations, some of which would weaken core democratic values and interests, such as support for a rules-based regional order, domestic freedom of expression, and the right to make and enforce laws against foreign interference. Beijing has also been able to organize the support of other illiberal governments at the United Nations to forward its interests, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and promote its ideas on human rights and state sovereignty to contest core principles of political freedoms on the world stage. That effort has recently intensified with Beijing’s promotion of its Global Security Initiative, a platform of its principles of international affairs aimed directly at rewriting the norms of the world order.
China has also flouted the rules of the global trading system and accumulated wealth by stealing intellectual property, propping up state-owned enterprises, heavily subsidizing favored industries and companies, and creating an unfair playing field for foreign firms in China by, for example, forcing them to transfer intellectual property and partner with local Chinese companies in order to gain access to the domestic market.
In the political and diplomatic spheres, Beijing is engaged in aggressive sharp-power practices abroad, seeking to co-opt political and business elites and influence narratives and opinions about the CCP via official propaganda outlets and engagement with local journalists and media institutions to promote Chinese government views and interests. This is also done by spreading misinformation and attacking democratic values on Twitter through official or quasi-official accounts. At home, the Chinese government is becoming increasingly centralized, oppressive, and intrusive in the lives of its citizens. President Xi Jinping eliminated term limits and has diminished potential rivals, setting himself up as the most powerful dictator in China since Mao Zedong. The Chinese government is also committing gross human-rights violations—notably in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Furthermore, the CCP appears to be spreading its model of authoritarianism to other countries by, for example, exporting high-tech surveillance equipment and training officials on how to control information flows. China is attacking democracy and democratic principles and systems with increasing force through state propaganda, and through its actions within institutions such as the United Nations. And, it is presenting its own autocratic governance as a superior model for achieving economic development and managing national crises, such as controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese officials have gone so far as to attempt to redefine democracy to represent their own regime as democratic. This campaign threatens the primacy of democracy in the world order, and risks elevating the legitimacy of illiberal regimes.
As for the security domain, China is seeking to shift the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific by investing in military modernization, and adopting weapons systems (e.g., anti-ship ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, significant upgrades of its nuclear arsenal) and operational concepts (e.g., anti-access/area denial) that will make it difficult for the United States to defend long-standing allies and partners in the region. Beijing is also involved in a number of territorial and maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas and in the Himalayan Plateau, establishing control over contested territory through coercion and raising the specter of conflict. China also undermines the rules-based order by pursuing territorial claims without proper basis in prevailing international law and norms—most of all, in the South China Sea—with potentially dangerous consequences for regional peace and security. Furthermore, China is expanding its military footprint abroad, including in Africa and South America.
The increasingly assertive foreign policy emanating from Beijing has heightened global competition with the United States and its allies in a wide range of areas. Economic competition has risen markedly as China attempts to overtake the advanced democracies in cutting-edge technologies, while the United States and its partners strive to maintain their edge. The world’s international organizations and social media platforms are afire with ideological battles over differing political and social principles. Beijing and Washington are battling for influence inside the United Nations and other key global and multilateral forums. The emerging competition is especially intense within the Indo-Pacific, where China’s core political and economic interests are most concentrated. Tensions are rising around China’s borders, as Beijing takes a more aggressive stance over Taiwan, its claims in the South China Sea, and territorial disputes with India. China’s shift in policy is also taking place in the context of an Indo-Pacific region rising in importance in the global economy. This has compelled the United States and its allies to intensify their involvement in this vital region. The European Union (EU) has developed a new strategy to engage with the Indo-Pacific and strive for greater cooperation with the region’s countries.1For more, see “Questions and Answers: EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” European Commission, 2021,https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/QANDA_21_4709. The United States, already a Pacific power, has engaged more closely in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and has launched a fresh effort to promote regional cooperation and rules-based business and trade with the fourteen-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, unveiled in May.
This atmosphere of greater tension and competition has given rise to fears that the world is descending into a new Cold War between an authoritarian China and the democratic allies. In such an environment, continued attempts to engage and cooperate with China take on special urgency to maintain the dialogue and linkages that can act as stabilizers and guardrails, and to prevent hostilities from becoming outright confrontation.
Potential areas of mutual interest
The benefits attained through cooperation between China and the United States and its allies are obvious for all to see. All parties have amassed tremendous economic gains from expanded trade and investment—China most of all. Its integration with the world’s advanced democratic economies has been a key factor behind China’s exceptional record of poverty alleviation and economic growth. Enhanced exchanges in culture, education, and other areas have improved the lives of students, scientists, entrepreneurs, pop stars, athletes, tourists, and countless others, and improved the mutual understanding between East and West. The bonds forged through such interaction helped to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific and contributed to the overall surge in prosperity in that region.
Unfortunately, over the past half-decade, politicians, policymakers, and other stakeholders in both China and the allied democracies have soured on engagement. Beijing has shown itself increasingly resistant to the concerns of the United States and its allies on a range of important issues, including trade, human rights, and regional security, and has pursued a more assertive foreign policy that has heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific. The Xi administration has also altered its domestic policies to limit further integration with the advanced economies and, more broadly, the global economy, such as a campaign for “self-sufficiency” in everything from semiconductors to food, which has a heavy component of import substitution, and “dual circulation,” a new concept that separates China’s domestic economy from its international exchange, and favors the development of the former.
Meanwhile, the United States and its partners in Europe and Asia have grown frustrated with Chinese behavior and—increasingly, but to varying degrees—have come to perceive China as a strategic adversary. That has led to a reassessment of the long-standing policy of engagement and questioning of its continued wisdom. A widely held belief emerged that a new strategy to contend with China was badly needed, but the democratic allies are divided on what that strategy should be.
The sharpest critics of engagement favor a hardline approach that treats China primarily as a threat and bad global actor, and that seeks “decoupling”—the unwinding of the economic integration that sat at the heart of relations with Beijing. Others have feared such an approach would descend into destabilizing superpower competition and, instead, argue continued interaction and collaboration are not just desirable, but necessary to ensure global security.
In recent months, however, a broad consensus among the allied democracies seems to be evolving, based on a multi-track approach. It was summarized by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said ”our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”2Anthony Blinken, “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” United States Department of State, 2021https://www.state.gov/a-foreign-policy-for-the-american-people/. See also, Matthew Kroenig and Jeffrey Cimmino, “An Allied Strategy for China,” Atlantic Council, 2020, in collaboration with D-10 experts,https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/global-strategy-2021-an-allied-strategy-for-china/. Furthermore, Blinken, in a speech in May, fine-tuned the administration’s approach and stressed the vital importance of policy coordination among the US and its allies in confronting China. China’s response to the war in Ukraine has also heightened alarm in Europe to the potential dangers of expanding Chinese influence. These shifts in policy to reflect changing events have better aligned the thinking of policymakers in the United States and Europe, though the diverse members of the democratic alliance system will likely continue to occupy different places on the spectrum between confrontation and cooperation with China.3Speech by Antony Blinken, May 26, 2022. https://www.state.gov/the-administrations-approach-to-the-peoples-republic-of-china/ This practical shift in policy in Washington has better aligned the United States with the thinking of many policymakers in Europe, though the diverse members of the democratic alliance system will likely continue to occupy different places on the spectrum between confrontation and cooperation with China.
The potential benefits of this approach have already become apparent. Despite continued disagreements and diplomatic sparring, China and the democratic allies have achieved results through constructive dialogue. In November 2021, for instance, Beijing and Washington hammered out a joint plan to reduce carbon emissions. China has participated in a debt relief program organized by the Group of Twenty (G20) to assist financially troubled low-income countries, an important step in maintaining global financial stability, although it has been reluctant to proceed with restructuring deals.4Andrea Shalal and David Lawder, “As dominant creditor, China must ‘step up’ on debt restructuring, Indonesia’s Indrawati says,” Reuters, 2022,https://www.reuters.com/business/finance/dominant-creditor-china-must-step-up-debt-restructuring-indonesias-indrawati-2022-04-22/.
Those examples highlight that there are still fruitful opportunities for engagement with China that could produce beneficial results for all parties—and the international community overall. While China and members of the US alliance system will likely remain at odds on several core issues relating to the future of the international order, China shares an interest in multilateral cooperation across a range of domains. Beijing, for example, is eager to ensure that the functional systems that connect people across international borders are protected and maintained, including, for example, cooperation on postal delivery, underwater communications cables, air-traffic control and navigation, and visa issuance and cross-border travel. China’s economy benefits tremendously from free and open trade, and a system that facilitates the transit of goods across international shipping channels. Similarly, Chinese authorities have a clear interest in maintaining rules and processes that facilitate cross-border capital flows and currency exchange. More broadly, Beijing shares an interest in ensuring that global security threats, ranging from international terrorism and piracy to organized crime and drug cartels, are adequately addressed.
There are several other domains in which China has the potential to play a more constructive global role, though, given the challenges cited below, the United States and its allies will need to be realistic about how much can be achieved in these areas. The allied democracies may both compete and cooperate—not only between different domains, but even within each domain—finding themselves adversaries on some aspects and partners on others. Due to the immensely complex and wide-ranging interactions between China and the rest of the world, contending with a more assertive Beijing is a complicated endeavor that requires an equally nuanced and sophisticated approach, which will demand different policies and approaches depending on the area of proposed collaboration.
Despite increased tensions during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health presents an area ripe for cooperation between the democratic allies and China. As the global community seeks to both recover from the current crisis and install mechanisms to prevent or address future outbreaks, collaboration with China will be necessary. China has a strong interest in preventing future pandemics and controlling the spread of disease, due to both the impact on its domestic population and potential spillover effects in the global economy.
The United States and its partners have a history of collaborating with China on public-health matters. In 2002, for instance, they worked together to establish the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. In 2014, the United States provided funds and personnel to respond to the Ebola epidemic, while China sent supplies and medical workers to build hospitals and testing facilities. Given that China experienced the initial COVID outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020, and has served as the origin point for another widespread virus outbreak in the recent past (e.g., SARS in the early 2000s), cooperation with Beijing will be necessary to figure out how to build a stronger global health architecture.
However, to manage the current pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, the CCP must be more open and transparent with the global community. It is a step in the right direction that China recently proposed cooperation with the United States on vaccine-certificate protocols, vaccine distribution, and proof of immunization for bilateral travel.5Lingling Wei and Bob Davis, “China Pushes for High-Level Meeting to Ease Tension With U.S.,” Wall Street Journal, 2021,https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-pushes-for-high-level-meeting-to-ease-tension-with-u-s-11611342973?mod=hp_listb_pos1. The United States can embrace this offer from China, and incorporate its partners into these efforts to agree upon global vaccine protocols.
Rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) was a vital step for the United States to engage multilaterally on global public-health issues. On the other hand, the early stages of the pandemic exposed weaknesses in the WHO—which, as a member-state organization, can be hamstrung by a lack of cooperation from its members. The United States can work with its allies to instill norms of accountability and transparency within the body. They can also continue to engage with China through this multilateral forum to work toward implementing reforms meant to strengthen global health security.
The democratic allies and China should also work to strengthen international health frameworks such as the International Health Regulations (IHR), which oversee efforts by countries to secure public health and report outbreaks.
Furthermore, the United States, its partners, and China should consider creating an international public-health watchdog. This body would include a team of investigators who could travel to a country and determine the source of a disease outbreak. Just as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspects nuclear facilities of NPT member states, this body could perform regular inspections to ensure state compliance with global-health commitments. It should coordinate with the WHO, while maintaining some independence to maximize its flexibility to respond to crises without getting drowned in WHO member-state politics.6Jeffrey Cimmino et al., “A Global Strategy for Shaping the Post-Covid World” Atlantic Council, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/a-global-strategy-for-shaping-the-post-covid-19-world/.
Still, the United States and its partners must remain wary of China’s intentions in regard to public health. Beijing could see opportunities in this area to bolster its own global influence, especially within the developing world, as it has tried through COVID “vaccine diplomacy.” Beijing could leverage its pull in international organizations to stymie transparency and coordination in cases in which China’s leaders perceive they damage their interests. The CCP’s continued resistance to a full and transparent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which it sees as a threat, shows clearly that its leadership may not be willing to cooperate on public-health issues, even though the need is all too apparent. International health appears to be an area in which the democratic allies and China will find the need to cooperate in conflict with the need to compete, as each side advocates different norms and attempts to extend its influence.
China has arguably benefited more than any other country from the current rules-based order forged by the United States and its partners in Europe and Asia. The free trade and flows of finance encouraged and supported by this system and its institutions played an indispensable role in China’s ascent to the world’s second-largest economy. China gained tremendously from inflows of capital and technology, as well as generally unhindered access to major foreign markets for its exports. China’s interaction with the rules-based order, therefore, has been at the foundation of the rising wealth of the Chinese population and modernization of China’s economy.
Nevertheless, Beijing has sought to further advance its economic interests through unfair trade and business practices that threaten the current global order and have been (and will continue to be) a source of friction between China and the advanced economies. In many respects, Beijing takes undue advantage of the rules-based system, benefiting from its freedoms and institutions, but failing to abide by its norms or reciprocate its openness. It is also likely that the global economy will be a major forum of competition between the United States and China for years to come, as each strives for economic competitiveness and technological advancement to sustain its national power and international influence.
Still, policymakers in China and the democratic allies continue to share a critical interest in the stability of the global economy. With much of China’s foreign trade and business conducted in US dollars, Beijing has a strong stake in the well-being of the US economy. Beijing’s purchases of US Treasury bonds have financed US debt and kept down interest rates in the United States and the world. China, as the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter, is a vital commercial partner for many countries, and Chinese investment abroad has also bolstered the global economy. Countries around the world benefit greatly from access to China’s vast internal market (though that access is often constrained by formal and informal barriers to foreign investors and companies).
The United States and its allies—with their collective economic weight—will be in a stronger position to engage China on economic issues if they coordinate while negotiating bilateral or multilateral agreements with Beijing. Over the past three years, the United States and China signed a phase-one trade deal, while the European Union (EU) and China agreed in principle on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment later stalled by China’s harsh response to European sanctions on human-rights grounds. Both show Beijing’s willingness to negotiate economic agreements of mutual interest. However, the success of the former has been limited, while there are concerns that the latter does not go far enough to secure a fair playing field for EU companies in China or to ensure Beijing abides by international labor standards.7Hung Tran, “How the Rest of the World Responds to the US-China Split,” Atlantic Council, 2021,https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/US_China_split_final.pdf; Silvia Amaro, “China’s investment deal with the EU has raised 3 big concerns in Europe,” CNBC, 2021,https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/06/china-eu-trade-deal-what-it-is-and-why-it-might-fail.html. The democratic allies would be better served by approaching China collectively as they work with Beijing to ensure a fair, open global economy and seek reforms to Chinese economic policies.
The United States and its allies may achieve better results in negotiations with China on economic and trade matters if they form “working groups” with their Chinese counterparts on specific issues. Attempts to coax China into economic agreements or reforms through regular contact, such as the long-running Strategic and Economic Dialogue, produced few tangible results. Chinese authorities use these regular forums to create the impression of cooperation while evading deliverable, concrete commitments. By being more limited in scope, a “working group” formula aimed at narrowly defined areas of concern would focus those negotiations. It would be best if multiple countries joined together in these “working groups” to heighten pressure on China to change its policies.
More boldly, some experts recommend that the United States, its allies, and China agree to new rules of economic engagement that promote equal treatment and reciprocity. These rules could involve trade, investment, supply chains, and human-capital flows, and be adjudicated through the creation of a multilateral “supreme court.” Such a body would differ from the World Trade Organization (WTO) in that it would handle problems beyond just trade in a judicious and impartial manner that could not be exploited by the United States or China.8Mark Sobel, “US-China: New rules of engagement,” OMFIF, 2020,https://www.omfif.org/2020/12/us-china-new-rules-of-engagement/. Once again, the democratic allies should negotiate new global economic rules and norms collectively.
At the same time, the United States and its allies must remain aware of the possibility that China’s current leadership has little interest in either cooperating on global economic norms or altering its domestic investment and trade policies to accommodate its economic partners. Beijing has a long track record of resisting reforms it considers contrary to China’s economic interests, even when under consistent pressure. For instance, China has liberalized its currency regime at a glacial pace, even though US officials have complained about manipulation for decades. The recent US-China trade talks revealed Beijing is not even open to discussing its heavy subsidization of high-tech industries. In this light, the United States and its partners may need to limit their interactions with China to addressing small-scale technical issues—such as specific market-opening measures—rather than sweeping norms and processes.
The United States and its partners in Europe and the Asia-Pacific have a long history of promoting economic development in the emerging world, both directly in the form of national assistance programs and through multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. More recently, China has become a major player in global development, through the infrastructure-building BRI and large-scale lending by Chinese policy banks to governments in the developing world. The US, allied governments and established institutions, and China could theoretically contribute greatly to global poverty alleviation and economic prosperity by working together in these endeavors. But, this realm, too, has become a forum of great-power competition. Though Beijing markets the BRI as a multilateral sustainable-development effort, the participation of international companies in its projects has been limited, and Chinese authorities have used the program to promote China’s business and political interests abroad.9For Instance, see the report “The Road Less Travelled: European Involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative,”European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, 2020,https://www.europeanchamber.com.cn/en/press-releases/3110/european_chamber_report_identifies_profound_lack_of_european_involvement_in_china_s_belt_and_road_initiative_and_the_scheme_s_dampening_effects_on_global_competition. In response, the United States and Europe have devised their own initiatives to rival China’s BRI—Build Back Better World and Global Gateway, respectively. The G7 countries launched the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment at their most recent summit in June.
There is room in this area for collaboration, however. With all parties being heavily invested in the welfare of low-income countries, they have a shared interest in ensuring those countries’ financial stability and economic progress. This common goal resulted in China’s participation in the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, aimed at providing debt relief to troubled developing nations during the pandemic-created global economic downturn, and the subsequent Common Framework for Debt Treatment to smooth restructurings. These initiatives, both organized through the G20, show the potential for beneficial collaboration. Much more can be done in this area. G7 finance ministers recently criticized China for foot-dragging on debt restructurings. Further collaboration on emerging-economy debt will be critical to successful restructurings to ease the strain on low-income countries and foster more sustainable economic progress.
China should be encouraged to participate in the institutions and processes devised by the United States and its partners to manage financial stability in low-income countries—for instance, the Paris Club and the Creditor Reporting System of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). That would help coordinate the lending efforts of China and other donor countries, to better ensure the financial health of poor debtor countries. It would also help improve the standards of Chinese lending and development programs, too often plagued by corruption, insufficient planning, and weak environmental and labor standards.
There may be limits, however, to how closely the democratic allies can work with China on development issues. Beijing seems intent on claiming leadership in global development efforts to promote its own interests. China has capitalized on its growing clout at the United Nations (UN) to forward the BRI, for instance. China has long chosen to remain outside the Paris Club.10Lex Rieffel, “Normalizing China’s Relations with the Paris Club,” Stimson, 2021, https://www.stimson.org/2021/normalizing-chinas-relations-with-the-paris-club/. The loans programs of China’s state policy banks have also often diverged from traditional development finance to pursue brazenly commercial aims.11See, for instance, Anna Gelpern et al., “How China Lends,” AidData, 2021,https://www.aiddata.org/how-china-lends.
Climate and the environment
Collaboration with Beijing will be crucial to mitigate the impact of climate change. While China wants to ensure that its economic development proceeds without obstacles, it also has interests in preventing environmental damage and in ensuring the long-term protection of the global climate. More practically, Chinese leaders have a strong interest in reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels, while promoting and profiting from new forms of energy and the industries and jobs they will create. China is a major investor in green technology: it is the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy, and it is the largest domestic and foreign investor in renewable energy.12Dominic Chiu, “The East Is Green: China’s Global Leadership in Renewable Energy,” CSIS,https://www.csis.org/east-green-chinas-global-leadership-renewable-energy.
US allies and partners should continue to engage China on environmental issues, and should revitalize international forums for climate discussion with China. The Biden administration should place renewed emphasis on the US-China Climate Change Working Group. The administration also took a positive step by reviving the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change (MEF). Bilateral cooperation between the United States and China was crucial in paving the way for the 2016 Paris Climate Accords, and further cooperation will be required to find sustainable climate solutions going forward.13Aimee Barnes et al., “How the US and China Could Renew Cooperation on Climate Change,” Colombia Center on Global Energy Policy, 2020,https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/file-uploads/Biden_China_CGEP_Commentary_v3.pdf.
Coordination should be tailored to areas of mutual interest, such as the modeling and construction of zero-carbon buildings. Collaboration, on these issues and others, should involve an ongoing exchange of best practices and standard setting, and can take place in international forums such as the MEF, as well as through bilateral or multilateral dialogues.
The democratic allies should also collaborate with China to find sustainable solutions for green-industry investment in the developing world. Toward this end, one idea would be to encourage China to commit to debt-for-climate swaps in developing countries. China would agree to restructure debt to allow developing countries to make payments toward climate-related projects.14Sarah Ladislaw, “Productive Competition: A Framework for U.S.-China Engagement on Climate Change,” CSIS, 2021,https://www.csis.org/analysis/productive-competition-framework-us-china-engagement-climate-change. These swaps could be similar to debt-for-nature swaps, in which developing countries have a portion of their outstanding debt cancelled in exchange for financing their own conservation programs.
The United States and its allies, however, should be on guard against Beijing’s attempts to exploit the democracies’ concern about climate to soften other aspects of policy toward China, such as policy related to human-rights concerns. Climate change is of immense importance, but it should not take priority over other key concerns with China’s behavior. Chinese leaders must be encouraged to cooperate on climate as part of an overall, multidimensional effort by the democratic powers to alter Chinese abuses and bad practices that threaten the rules-based global order. The allies should also be aware that climate is as much an arena for competition as for collaboration. China sees new energy industries and technology as key to the country’s economic future, and it wishes to dominate this sector to promote its global interests. This is clear, for instance, in the government’s heavily subsidized charge into electric vehicles. While interaction with Beijing on climate is critical, so is protecting and advancing proprietary technology to ensure the allies’ future economic competitiveness.
Humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, and food security
China has also played a constructive role in global humanitarian efforts by supporting UN peacekeeping missions, humanitarian aid, and food security. According to the latest figures from the UN, China ranks ninth in the number of troops and police committed to peacekeeping missions globally (approximately 2,500).15“Troops and Police Contributions,” United Nations Peacekeeping, 2022,https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors. China also contributes 15 percent of the UN peacekeeping program’s overall budget, behind only the United States. Where China sends peacekeeping troops appears to correlate with countries in which it has significant investments. However, as one analysis has shown, China’s peacekeeping presence in these countries does not seem to be affected by increasing or decreasing Chinese investment.16“What Motivates Chinese Peacekeeping?,” Council on Foreign Relations, 2020,https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-motivates-chinese-peacekeeping.
The United States and its partners should coordinate with China on peacekeeping, and acknowledge where Chinese troops act as a stabilizing force. Even if China’s peacekeeping efforts are partially motivated by economic self-interest—such as in South Sudan, where China has a full infantry battalion of more than one thousand troops and significant oil investments—these forces can still advance goals of domestic and regional stability.17China power team, “Is China Contributing to the United Nations’ Mission?,” Chinapower, 2016,https://chinapower.csis.org/china-un-mission/#easy-footnote-bottom-4-479
Meanwhile, China has supported humanitarian missions and advanced global food security. The role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief has grown in recent decades. Examples of China’s humanitarian aid range from its previously cited relief provided during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to support for the Philippines after a 2013 typhoon and Nepal after a 2015 earthquake. At times, China has disregarded best practices for humanitarian operations and allowed political considerations to impede effective humanitarian response. For example, when Beijing provided aid to Nepal, it denied other countries the ability to send military responders to its area of operations, out of concern for potential damage to China’s image.18Matthew Southerland, “The Chinese Military’s Role in Overseas Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief: Contributions and Concerns,” U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2019,https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/USCC%20Staff%20Report_The%20Chinese%20Military%E2%80%99s%20Role%20in%20Overseas%20Humanitarian%20Assistance%20and%20Disaster%20Relief_7.11.19.pdf. With regard to 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 research and development (R&D). It has provided agricultural assistance programs to tens of countries in Africa. Shared interests in ensuring global stability, providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and safeguarding food access should facilitate fruitful cooperation between the democratic allies and China.
The United States and its partners should encourage China to work more within preexisting international frameworks for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and to adhere to prevailing best practices for disaster relief, such as the Oslo Guidelines promoted by the UN.19For more, see “Oslo Guidelines: Guidelines on The Use of Foreign Militaryand Civil Defence Assets In Disaster Relief,” Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations, 2007,https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/OSLO%20Guidelines%20Rev%201.1%20-%20Nov%2007.pdf. China currently prefers a bilateral approach to humanitarian aid, but Beijing should be urged to work with other donors in a more multilateral and cooperative fashion, and with greater transparency, to avoid duplication of efforts, make aid more effective, and identify targets that are being neglected.
Finally, China’s long history with famine, and continued prioritization of food security, offers an opportunity to engage Beijing and shape its approach in this area. To achieve domestic food security, China often bilaterally secures land and food supply chains in developing countries, a practice akin to land grabs. The United States and its allies should push back against this behavior, but also engage China—along with the rest of the international community—to create new multilateral frameworks that acknowledge the importance of domestic food security.
One possibility would be to create new conventions that prevent the weaponization of food in international conflict, which could alleviate some Chinese fears of a blockade on food imports. There is already some progress toward this. In 2018, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the use of starvation as a form of warfare, and this could be taken a step further by developing a “right to food” in international law.20Ehud Eiran, Michaela Elias and Aron M. Troen, “No Bread, No Peace,” Foreign Policy, 2021,https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/23/food-hunger-national-security-issue-instability/.
At the same time, the democratic allies can work with China to advance food security globally by investing resources in developing countries to improve their agricultural output, and to further encourage its participation and coordination of food-aid efforts through multilateral institutions and agencies, such as the World Food Programme (WFP).
Arms control and nonproliferation
China is a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and it is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Furthermore, Beijing has, in the past, supported multilateral sanctions against nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, and it has participated in multilateral negotiations with both states. China is especially uneasy about the nuclear ambitions of its partner in Pyongyang. The potential for North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to cause a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia—in which regional rivals such as Japan and South Korea decide to develop their own nuclear capabilities—is clearly not in China’s interests. Beijing has, thus, repeatedly shown willingness to pressure and try to convince the regime in Pyongyang to renounce and dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. For instance, China participated in “six-party talks” on the issue in the 2000s.
In theory, therefore, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is another area of potential collaboration with China. The United States and its allies should consider continuing to encourage China to participate in multilateral forums to contain nuclear proliferation. However, they should also keep in mind that Beijing’s true commitment to nonproliferation is questionable. China, as North Korea’s most important ally and practically sole economic partner, could wield more influence over Pyongyang than any other country, either through friendly persuasion or economic pressure. Beijing also appears to be in a position to woo Pyongyang into better behavior with promises of political support and economic development. But, over the past thirty years, Beijing has made little or no progress in preventing North Korean nuclearization, suggesting that the leverage the Chinese government is willing to employ with Pyongyang is insufficient to change its calculus. Beijing’s position toward North Korean nuclearization is in conflict with its persistent fear that a collapse of the Pyongyang government would destabilize its remote border with the country and, worse still, lead to a unified, democratic Korea with close political, economic, and defense ties to the United States. Indeed, Beijing’s interest in maintaining North Korea as a “buffer” against expanded US influence in Asia and a more powerful Korea may provide the Kim Jong-un government a degree of leverage over Beijing. The United States and its allies in the region must be cautious of Beijing merely dangling the hope of cooperation on North Korea as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on other issues of importance to the Chinese government.
The United States and its partners also need to consider that China may not be a reliable partner in stemming nuclear proliferation in other ways as well. While China has supported the P5+1 negotiations aimed at convincing Iran to hold to a new agreement limiting its nuclear ambitions, China signed a twenty-five-year cooperation agreement with Tehran in 2021. Though that deal in itself does not suggest Beijing is “soft” on proliferation, it does indicate China’s leaders could act in ways that alleviate the diplomatic and economic pressure Washington and its allies are employing to prod Tehran into a negotiated nuclear settlement.
While Beijing has not yet participated in binding arms-control agreements on its own nuclear stockpiles, it will be necessary to bring China into the fold to have an effective twenty-first-century arms-control regime. China is currently engaging in a nuclear-arms buildup and working to complete its nuclear triad. Absent an effort to bring China into binding arms-control agreements, the United States may be forced to engage in a strategic arms competition to maintain qualitative and quantitative superiority over China.
Still, there are several reasons why China might be inclined to participate in arms-control discussions. For example, in the wake of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty’s demise, China likely fears the prospect of Russia and the United States deploying intermediate-range missiles on its borders. Furthermore, China may join arms-control agreements if there is a chance that such talks would lead to limitations on US and Russian nonnuclear strategic systems, such as precision-guided munitions and missile defenses. Beijing worries that these could threaten its deterrent capability. China may also be motivated by the fear that failure to join arms-control deals would result in a strategic arms race with the United States—which it would likely lose—or a regional buildup, in which other Asian powers develop or expand their own nuclear capabilities. While they may not lead to a binding arms-control agreement in the near future, strategic-stability talks between the United States and China could offer a platform to discuss nuclear issues, or serve as a stepping stone toward arms-control agreements down the road.
The United States and its allies, however, must also consider the possibility that, at least in the short-to-medium term, Beijing will continue to shun commitments that constrain the expansion and improvement of its military capabilities. Having taken a more adversarial stance against the United States and its allies, Beijing’s political and military leaders may feel it necessary to “catch up” in military technology and scale to the allied democracies in order to prepare itself for possible future conflict, or to deter such conflict.
The area in which Beijing is most likely to cooperate—technology—is also the one most fraught with potential downside for the United States and its allies. China has made no secret of its quest to catch up to, and eventually surpass, the advanced economies in technology across the spectrum, from artificial intelligence (AI) to semiconductors to electric vehicles. The Chinese government will be more than happy to partner with more advanced economies to develop cutting-edge technologies.
In theory, there are several potential areas of worthwhile cooperation with China on new technology. Collaboration on types of technology that can be considered a “public good,” such as innovations in green energy to combat climate change or advanced seeds to enhance food security, could be highly beneficial for China, the United States and its allies, and the international community more broadly. The large pool of engineering talent in China, combined with the government’s strong interest in these emerging technologies, would allow the country to potentially make meaningful contributions in these important areas.
However, it is absolutely critical that the United States and its allies prepare themselves for the potential dangers inherent in such partnerships with Beijing. It is effectively official economic policy in China to acquire foreign technology by any means necessary—legal purchase, forced technology transfer, or illegal cybertheft—and then heavily subsidize Chinese industry to produce and export this technology, with the aim of replacing imported technology within the Chinese domestic market and undermining the economic competitiveness of the advanced democracies and their corporations. Using such methods, China has already succeeded in the solar-panel and telecommunications-equipment industries, and it is clearly intending to do the same in electric vehicles, microchips, aviation, AI, and a host of other sectors. The United States and its partners must realize that cooperation with China in the technology space could severely diminish their technological advantage over China and, thus, their core economic competitiveness.
Cooperation in certain areas related to technology appears to be a nonstarter. As China is a primary source of cybertheft and hacking, the focus of US and European efforts should be to prevent further Chinese abuses. Similarly, it seems impossible to cooperate with China on matters of data security, misinformation, and other issues related to international Internet governance and digital services, due to Beijing’s “Great Firewall,” abuses of online freedoms, and clear intent to spread its censorship practices beyond its borders. The democratic allies, furthermore, must ensure that any cooperation with China on technology cannot be misused by the Chinese regime to support its human-rights atrocities and suppression of basic civil liberties, such as facial-recognition systems or other forms of surveillance.
One potentially safer area for interaction is the development of common standards for emerging technologies such as AI, quantum computing, additive manufacturing, and biotechnology, which will reshape the global economy and the future of warfare. Governments should establish an agreed-upon understanding of the harms and benefits of emerging technologies as a precursor to developing regulatory frameworks. This effort could be modeled on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process that laid the foundation for discussions on needed environmental policies.21Matthew Burrows and Julien Mueller-Kaler, “Smart Partnership amid Great power Competition,” Atlantic Council, 2021,https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Smart-Partnerships-2021-Report-1.pdf.
But potentially insurmountable hurdles abound in this area as well. Beijing has a much different conception of fair use of technology in regard to privacy, surveillance, national security, freedom of speech, and free flow of information than the democratic allies, and it seems highly unlikely that the Chinese government would agree or adhere to standards based upon liberal political and social principles. Worse still, the CCP could try to subvert the purpose of an international regulatory framework to forward its own, illiberal ideas on the Internet, including censorship, government access to data, and control of information.
Challenges and obstacles to cooperation
While seeking to cooperate with China to address global challenges is a worthy endeavor, meaningful progress faces serious obstacles—due, in large part, to the conflicting nature of Beijing’s strategic outlook and that of leading democracies.
1. The CCP’s desire for linkage
China’s approach to cooperation with established democratic powers is premised on the notion that such engagement serves two main purposes: addressing discrete challenges in line with China’s national interests and binding major-country partners more closely to Beijing to prevent or complicate pushback against its assaults on the global order, assertiveness abroad, and rights abuses at home. The identification of joint solutions to those challenges often takes a backseat to the CCP’s overriding focus on reinforcing the legitimacy of its governing authority both domestically and internationally. China seeks to link its partnerships on any specific area to what might seem to be quite unrelated issues, conditioning its cooperation on a willingness by the United States and other parties to refrain from criticizing Beijing’s human-rights record, actions on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or the South China Sea, or resistance to participation in an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, to list a few examples. From the CCP’s perspective, China’s growing importance to resolving shared challenges such as climate change gives it the leverage and opportunity to demand other countries show “respect” and accept its behavior in other areas if they want China’s cooperation.
Beijing’s tactical approach to linkage is central to its strategic approach to becoming a great power in the international system. The CCP has long viewed deepening engagement with established major powers—including the United States and Europe—as critical to smoothing China’s rise and rejuvenation under party leadership. Chinese leaders have a starkly realist view of great-power politics and, since the end of the Cold War, have expected the United States, in particular, to seek to contain China’s rise once it became an evident threat to US power. To extend the so-called “window of strategic opportunity” in which China could build its strength without triggering Washington’s expected response, Chinese leaders have sought to deepen engagement and mutual dependence between China and potential adversaries. According to this view, China’s growing essential role in addressing shared priorities such as trade and global economic growth, stymieing the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, or global health should moderate US and allied pushback on China’s growing power and rights abuses at home. This thinking has been the driving factor behind Chinese formulations for bilateral relations such as the “new type of major-power relations,” which Beijing pushed during the Barack Obama administration.
Today, as Beijing routinely flexes its military strength and Xi Jinping describes China’s rising power as inevitable in contrast to the “decline of the West,” China is more determined than ever to insist that its cooperation on shared challenges is conditioned on the United States and its democratic allies treating China as an equal—that is, coming to accept its authoritarian system and the aggression and repression it produces.
2. A cycle of reactions to China’s mounting aggression
China is demanding greater compliance from developed democracies as a precondition for cooperation, even as it simultaneously steps up coercion and “wolf warrior” diplomacy in its engagement with those same countries. As noted above, China has sought to coerce Australia with economic penalties, demanding changes to the country’s democratic system to better suit CCP interests. Similar coercion has been targeted at other states Beijing deems resistant to its wishes, including Lithuania, Canada, and South Korea. China’s efforts to control ideas and suppress freedom of speech even outside its borders are naturally producing a backlash in open societies, and greater pressure on politicians in democratic countries to take a harder line with China. Greater awareness of the CCP’s gross human-rights abuses at home—most notably, the ongoing persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups and the CCP’s effective ending of autonomy in Hong Kong—have contributed to rising discomfort in liberal democratic countries over engaging with a CCP-led China. As noted earlier, China’s sanctions on a variety of European actors—including in civil society—in response to EU sanctions regarding the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, froze progress on a major investment agreement between Europe and China. Though support for outright “decoupling” remains on the fringes, the US government has introduced a range of measures to restrict US business with China, including a ban on the import of products made in Xinjiang using forced labor and stiffer export controls, and is under pressure to take further steps from both national security experts and human-rights activists. This cycle of China’s growing aggression and repression, reactions from democratic countries, and strong Chinese response to those reactions will continue to complicate cooperation on a range of issues.
3. China’s phase of economic development
Another systemic challenge toward cooperation relates to China’s phase of economic development relative to the United States and other advanced democracies. China is still a developing country, according to the World Bank, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) that is one-seventh that of the United States. The country has large swathes of its population living in relative poverty, with an average wage of $1.52 per hour.22Jason Shvili,“Is China a Developing Country?,” World Alas, 2021,https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/is-china-a-developing-country.html In theory, China’s continued need for growth and access to foreign markets, technology, and investment should offer an avenue of fruitful interaction between Beijing and its major trading partners. However, it is ironically having the opposite effect. Xi Jinping and his economic team have begun to stress the critical importance of reducing the country’s economic vulnerabilities to the outside world, especially the United States and other potential adversarial powers. This has taken the form of a “self-sufficiency” campaign and extensive industrial policies aimed at supporting homegrown Chinese technology to replace foreign imports. As a result, China’s interests on a range of global issues are often in conflict with those of developed countries. The intent of Chinese economic policy is to dominate the “commanding heights” of the global economy—the key technologies of the future—as a route to gaining leverage over the United States and other potential opponents, and to forward its political and strategic interests. This agenda presents a direct threat to the economic competitiveness and interests of the United States and other advanced economies, and has led to increased restrictions on Chinese access to foreign technology. The competition has sparked a cycle that could turn the issues of trade and investment—potential areas of cooperation—into points of contention.
4. Party focus on information control
The CCP’s overriding focus on maintaining the regime’s control leads to policies that inherently complicate cooperation with democracies. The party puts a premium on control over ideology and even ideas inside China, viewing the “infiltration” of notions of liberal democracy and individual rights as threats to its grip on power. This complicates trends toward greater economic integration and cultural exchanges with developed democracies. Furthermore, China’s control over information and paranoia about the impact of government missteps—and foreign criticism—on party legitimacy at home limits potential for cooperation on challenges such as public health. This was most clearly evidenced by China’s efforts to control information inside China following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and its subsequent refusal to allow unfettered access to international observers to identify the cause of the outbreak. This issue will also continue to create conflicts between Beijing and leading democracies over, for instance, the harassment of foreign media organizations and journalists working in China, and the denial of access to global social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to the Chinese domestic market.
5. Chinese domestic politics
The centralization of power in the person of Xi Jinping has created new impediments to cooperation. To justify his political dominance, Xi has fostered a personality cult centered on the assertion that he is the man to fulfill the “Chinese Dream,” the vaguely defined achievement of national rejuvenation. Propaganda within China portrays Xi as the great defender of the Chinese nation, who will right the wrongs of the “century of humiliation” and restore respect for China on the world stage. This narrative potentially ties Xi’s hands in managing a flexible foreign policy, and almost compels him to take a more aggressive and recalcitrant position in international affairs. Much of the “wolf warrior” diplomacy is aimed at bolstering nationalist support for Xi’s regime, even as it sours Beijing’s relations abroad. Many of China’s dealings with the United States are marketed in state media as Chinese victories over disrespectful foreigners. For instance, the recent settlement of the US Justice Department’s fraud case against Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was portrayed domestically as a triumph of Chinese diplomacy over unfair US persecution, while Politburo member Yang Jiechi was heralded as a national hero for lecturing his US counterparts at a 2021 meeting in Alaska. In his discussions with President Joe Biden, Xi is characterized as “finger wagging” the US leader over issues such as Taiwan. As long as Xi needs to burnish his domestic standing with assertiveness abroad, with a stress on political point scoring rather than sincere dialogue, the Beijing government may be too “boxed in” to certain positions to make cooperation with Washington possible. Members of the democratic alliance that have taken somewhat less confrontational approaches to China may find Beijing more flexible, but only so far as collaboration isn’t seen in Beijing as potentially undermining Xi’s domestic political credibility. With Xi widely expected to retain control of China past the usual 10-year term at a major Communist Party congress later this year, the US and its allies should anticipate that his nationalistic domestic and foreign policies will continue to hamper attempts to negotiate and collaborate with the Chinese government.
Furthermore, Xi’s narrative, by its very nature, portrays the United States and its allies as inherently hostile to China’s interests—as imperialists that want to prevent the country’s rightful rejuvenation. State media perpetually reminds the public of the role the Western powers and Japan played in the “century of humiliation.” The West, and especially the United States, have become the “bogeyman” Xi needs to justify his regime at home. Simultaneously, Chinese media increasingly depict the United States as a power in inevitable decline, proven, under the propagandists’ pen, by Washington’s struggles to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. The United States and its allies may have to accept that Xi Jinping and the current administration have little interest in strengthening, or even in continuing, cooperation.
Given these challenges, policymakers must approach cooperation and engagement with Beijing with open eyes. Reaching meaningful agreement on many issues will be difficult. The authors propose the following recommendations.
- Avoid compromising fundamental values. The United States and its allies should resist China’s demands to link cooperation on substantive issues with tolerating its human-rights activities and other core violations of international governance and security norms. Obviously, to maintain sound relations with China, the United States and its European and Asian partners may need to make compromises on policy or technical matters to meet Chinese interests. But, the allies must also be willing to walk away and forego cooperation if the alternative is undermining core values and pillars of the global rules-based order. The democratic allies must also remain wary of sacrificing key values and elements of the world order in the hope of greater cooperation with China on issues such as climate change. That would hasten the decay of the rules-based global order and create an international environment unfavorable for the interests of the allied democracies.
- Leverage China’s need to appear a constructive leader. Democratic countries should leverage the CCP’s desire to demonstrate for domestic and international audiences that China is now a global leader on the critical issues facing humanity, including climate. Allied democracies should jointly call out Beijing’s efforts to link constructive cooperation to human rights, and refuse Beijing platforms to claim the leadership mantle on such issues unless it engages in good faith.
- Continue engagement through the G20, United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and other multilateral venues. It is important to provide settings where the United States and its allies seek to ground China in the international system and provide an open path to progress, and an off-ramp if progress is not possible.
- Create smaller multilateral groupings. Small groupings should be utilized on discrete issues—for example, a climate negotiating group. The United States should encourage engagement with China where allies and partners are also at the table, rather than in bilateral forums in which China’s stature may appear to be inflated and allies express concerns about a “group of two.”
- Think small as well as big. Many of the recommendations in this paper are aimed at achieving cooperation on the biggest and most critical issues facing the world today. But, in engaging China, the United States and its allies can also seek to make incremental progress by tackling smaller pieces of these challenging issues. For instance, reaching a sweeping agreement on WTO reform with China might be close to impossible, but achieving smaller breakthroughs on trade may not be. That might include mutual tariff reduction, reciprocal elimination of regulation on foreign investment, or other market-opening measures. Even on matters of great sensitivity to China, Beijing might be open to small-scale arrangements to reduce regional tensions or improve relations. Such small-scale triumphs of international or bilateral cooperation would, at the very least, improve the overall climate of China’s relations with other major powers.
- Strengthen the current world order. In the face of persistent and likely continued challenges from China, the world’s democracies must work harder to preserve and strengthen the rules-based global order and its institutions. This will act as a bulwark against the negative aspects of rising Chinese power, but also possibly compel Beijing into greater cooperation within that strengthened order. For instance, the United States and its partners should determine how their alternatives to China’s BRI will utilize and work with existing institutions, such as the World Bank, and country initiatives to prove to the developing world that the rules-based world order can still produce positive results and prosperity. Though admittedly difficult, Washington and its allies should consider reforming key global institutions such as the WTO, and establishing new entities, especially in the technology arena, to make them better able to uphold the principles and norms of the rules-based order.
- Coordination is key. The United States and its partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific will have much greater chances of successfully influencing Chinese behavior, convincing Chinese leaders of the value of cooperation on critical global issues, and preserving the rules-based global order if the major democracies coordinate their approaches to China and present a unified front to the greatest possible degree on issues of upmost importance to all parties. Without that, Beijing can “divide and conquer” by playing the democracies off one another and weakening the long-standing alliances at the foundation of the current global order. Understandably, there will be differences in opinion and approach between the members of the democratic alliance. There is no reason why all of the allies must hold the same views on every issue. To a certain extent, trying multiple approaches to collaboration with China opens more possible avenues to success. Whenever and however possible, policy coordination, and continued commitment to core values, could be the difference between success and failure when confronting the challenge presented by today’s China.
- Be prepared to walk. Cooperation with China is critical to ensuring future global stability and prosperity. However, the United States and its allies must also be willing to step back from cooperation and accept a certain degree of competition, and even confrontation, with China, if necessary. The key for the allied democracies is to ensure that any cooperation with China is in line with their long-term political, economic, and security interests. The major democracies must be wary that an increasingly adversarial China is interested mainly in cooperation that bolsters Chinese national power, either through expanded diplomatic, military, or economic influence, or through technological dominance. The United States and its partners should pursue their well-founded desire for cooperation with eyes wide open, to make certain that, in the process of seeking peace and economic benefit, they do not achieve just the opposite.