Following four years of isolationist foreign policy, restoring strong multilateral ties has been a top priority for the Biden administration. America’s departure from the global stage has introduced a host of competing interests that now test traditional US alliances, none more marked than a hesitation to risk economic ties with China over geopolitical or ideological gains. Yet, a recent spike in aggressive Chinese foreign policy has sparked a wave of hawkish sentiment towards Beijing, which presents Biden with an opportunity to rally traditional Western alliances. Nevertheless, it is important to contrast the differences in strategic and economic interests between the US and her allies as the world enters a new era of strategic competition.
Many Western nations have taken a more assertive approach to China’s waxing aggression over recent months. At its most recent summit in June 2021, NATO leaders declared that China presented “systemic challenges” to the international order after Beijing condemned the G7 over a joint statement that urged Chinese leadership to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” referencing concerns over human rights violations on Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population and the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
In addition, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – an informal group comprising the United States, Japan, Australia, and India – has also been given new life in the wake of China’s expanding influence. As of 2021, all four members have more openly aligned themselves over shared concerns of China’s behavior in the region. In November 2020, the group organized its first joint naval exercise in over a decade; more recently, the Biden administration hosted a virtual summit with all four countries’ leaders, signaling the administration’s commitment to deeper cooperation.
Still, while these are encouraging developments, they are not representative of the reality that each Western nation has strategic and economic interests independent of those pursued by the US. For instance, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, many EU officials view engagement with China as “an opportunity and a necessity,” underscoring the importance of maintaining strong economic interdependence between the nations. In other words, the US must be realistic about the areas that it can manifest effective cooperation with allies. While the West may jointly rally around matters of human rights and national security, the pace and intensity of action will likely be muted as stances are muddied by economic interests. A wholesale economic ‘decoupling’ between China and the West should not be expected.
Progression Towards Multilateralism
A deteriorating relationship between the US and the EU has been one of the most significant ramifications of the past four years of isolationism. Over the course of the previous administration, China was uniquely successful in warming bilateral trade relations with many EU nations. Breakthroughs in relations between the EU and China penned into action nearly a decade of trade negotiations via the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Moreover, several countries – both formally and informally – have joined the Chinese-led BRI initiative. Look no further than the German town of Duisburg, which has seen its freight economy elevated to record highs as it serves as the point of connection for all BRI-related trade between Germany and China.
However, recent months have brought changing tides. The EU has been willing to be more assertive in its criticism of China, paving the way for broader multilateral efforts. The European Parliament recently voted by overwhelming numbers to freeze the ratification process of CAI – a decision spurred by Chinese sanctions on several Members of the European Parliament (MEP) over EU sanctioning of Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of China’s Uyghur population in the western region of Xinjiang. Reinhard Bütikofer, an MEP sanctioned by China, stated, “with its sanctions, China has miscalculated. They should learn from their mistakes and rethink. Because of China’s sanctions, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment has been put into the freezer.” Parliament’s decision to suspend the unprecedented investment deal highlights the declining weight of trade interests within the EU-China relationship and underscores the increasing emphasis on global accountability for China’s aggressive activity.
The Quad has also evolved in recent years. The Biden administration has continued to build on the efforts started under the Trump administration to reinforce the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. As part of the summit in March 2021, all four countries pledged to jointly manufacture and distribute up to 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines throughout Southeast Asia. The vaccine would be funded by the US and Japan, produced by India, and distributed through logistical support from Australia. The pledge is a significant departure from the Quad’s history of consultations and military exercises. As Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution stated to the Washington Post, it shows that the Quad can “go from consultation and coordination to active cooperation in ways we can see” and that it is “proof of concept.”
Diverging Western Interests
While US allies in Europe and the Pacific have taken promising steps to counter China’s influence in their respective regions, hurdles for further cooperation remain. Despite Washington’s efforts to rally support for its efforts to contain Chinese influence, diverging economic and strategic priorities still risk tearing at the fabric of aligned foreign policy among allies.
For instance, Germany has found itself in an uncomfortable position due to its strategic differences with the United States. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2021, Angela Merkel, while praising the virtues of multilateralism, stressed that there remained differences between Germany and its allies. She stated “I believe the agenda is clear; and it’s also clear that we have to develop joint approaches. That doesn’t mean that our interests will always converge – I have no illusions about that; we also have to speak frankly about our differences.” Her speech echoed similar sentiments that were conveyed a month prior when she supported Chinese President Xi Jinping, stating that she was not “in favor of the formation of blocs,” at the World Economic Forum in January 2021.
German officials recently denounced growing calls for “decoupling” from China as well, stressing the importance of the EU-China economic relationship. In a virtual meeting with his Chinese counterpart, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “In the EU, we have been describing China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival at the same time […] in all these three dimensions we need strong, sustainable communication channels with Beijing. Decoupling is the wrong way to go.” Reflecting this approach, economic relations between Germany and China remain robust. For example, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, China was Germany’s largest trading partner in 2019 for the fourth year in a row, with German auto manufacturers selling more vehicles in China than domestically. This position was in spite of escalating concerns by European institutions like NATO and the EU over the security threat posed by growing Chinese influence and aggression abroad.
Australian officials have made similar comments, even as Canberra has taken more assertive action against Beijing. Even with the ongoing trade dispute and sinking diplomatic ties, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointed to the remaining trade between the nations to signal the underlying strength of the Sino-Australian relationship. In May 2021, Morrison stated “the relationship still exists, look at trade alone – there’s never been a bigger volume. That’s a bit of a proof point. When all’s said and done, there’s still great value in the relationship.” Although Australia has responded more forcefully against Chinese aggression, the debate over the future of Sino-Australian relations appears to be more politically delicate. Recent warnings from government officials of the potential for conflict with China has dampened bipartisan unity, and the economic blowback to Australia’s participation in multilateral efforts has sparked fierce debate domestically. Washington must take this potential divergence in US-Australian strategic and economic interests into consideration when attempting to coordinate further multilateral efforts.
Moving forward, it will be important for policymakers in the US and the West to acknowledge the differences in national strategic priorities in their multilateral efforts to cooperate on issues related to China. These differences are a key reason why China is unlikely to provoke a unified threat perception among Western allies, and for that reason, foreign policy experts at the Brookings Institution Lindsey W. Ford and James Goldgeier argue that the US and its allies must instead attempt to cooperate within interest-based coalitions. Some suggestions have included the backing of a “D-10” forum that would incorporate the G-7 countries along with Australia, India, and South Korea. To bolster national security efforts, others have suggested the expansion of the Five Eyes intelligence network to better coordinate democratic responses to Beijing’s political and military threats. In addition, there have also been calls for the Quad to develop a mechanism to incorporate additional allies like South Korea, France, and New Zealand.
Suggestions are varied. As allied interests can diverge so frequently, a single forum or alliance will be unlikely to fully address the challenge that China poses. By contrast, coalitions tailored to specific dimensions of competition with China – such as military, technological, and human rights – have the potential to be more efficient in confronting Chinese aggression while also keeping cognizant the strategic, economic, and political interests that separate allies.