Argument

The Great Game With China Is 3D Chess

Washington’s new rivalry with Beijing isn’t a reprise of the Cold War. It’s much more complicated.

chess board
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“On any issue that matters to the U.S.-China relationship,” President-elect Joe Biden has stated, “we are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of the world.” Indeed, the outcome of the U.S.-China competition will be determined, in large measure, by how adeptly Washington enlists like-minded nations to turn a bilateral contest into a multilateral one. After all, public polling shows growing international concern about China’s malign activities. But a key question remains: If Beijing poses such a clear global threat, then why has Washington struggled so mightily to build a coalition to counter its rise?

Many Trump administration officials blamed so-called free-riding allies and partners for shirking their obligations. Most outside experts, conversely, blamed the Trump administration’s America First approach for alienating many of those same allies and partners—a failure that the incoming Biden administration is presumed to be able to easily correct. Both explanations have some truth, but there are also deeper forces at work. The disconnect between U.S. strategy and global reality has its roots in two fundamental misconceptions.

First, many American conceptions of the competition with China rest on the false premise that this contest will be neatly bipolar—a replay of the East-West standoff in Europe during the Cold War. In reality, a much messier world is taking shape. Frustrated European leaders are charting their own course, with some advocating equidistance between Washington and Beijing. Important third countries, such as India, Indonesia, and Turkey, are exploring similar options. These countries feel no need to align entirely with the United States, nor with China, when they can gain by playing Washington and Beijing off each other. As a result, this will be a multipolar competition, not a bipolar one.

“On any issue that matters to the U.S.-China relationship,” President-elect Joe Biden has stated, “we are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of the world.” Indeed, the outcome of the U.S.-China competition will be determined, in large measure, by how adeptly Washington enlists like-minded nations to turn a bilateral contest into a multilateral one. After all, public polling shows growing international concern about China’s malign activities. But a key question remains: If Beijing poses such a clear global threat, then why has Washington struggled so mightily to build a coalition to counter its rise?

Many Trump administration officials blamed so-called free-riding allies and partners for shirking their obligations. Most outside experts, conversely, blamed the Trump administration’s America First approach for alienating many of those same allies and partners—a failure that the incoming Biden administration is presumed to be able to easily correct. Both explanations have some truth, but there are also deeper forces at work. The disconnect between U.S. strategy and global reality has its roots in two fundamental misconceptions.

First, many American conceptions of the competition with China rest on the false premise that this contest will be neatly bipolar—a replay of the East-West standoff in Europe during the Cold War. In reality, a much messier world is taking shape. Frustrated European leaders are charting their own course, with some advocating equidistance between Washington and Beijing. Important third countries, such as India, Indonesia, and Turkey, are exploring similar options. These countries feel no need to align entirely with the United States, nor with China, when they can gain by playing Washington and Beijing off each other. As a result, this will be a multipolar competition, not a bipolar one.

Second, hopes for a “new alliance of democracies,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocated, often reflect a mistaken belief that a single alliance will emerge to counter China. That might be the case if the same group of countries saw China as a military rival, an economic rival, a technological rival, and an ideological rival. But in an environment characterized by fluid alignments, the makeup of the counter-China coalition will shift depending on the problem. Key countries will cooperate with America on some issues but not others. The countries that most fear Chinese military power are not always the same countries that most fear its authoritarian influence. Succeeding in a multifaceted competition will therefore require not one coalition but many.

In particular, the United States must forge a geostrategic coalition of countries that oppose Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, an economic coalition to offset the coercive leverage that China’s commercial heft provides, a technological coalition to ensure that the CCP does not capture the commanding heights of innovation in the 21st century, and a governance coalition that can prevent Beijing from rewriting the world’s rules and norms. Gone are the days when America could simply rally the West to its side. Unless the United States adopts a more sophisticated approach to coalition building, it will be stuck trying to re-create a world that no longer exists.


Delegates at the NATO conference at Paris on Dec. 19, 1957.

Delegates at the NATO conference in Paris on Dec. 19, 1957. Keystone/Getty Images

At the outset of the Cold War, Winston Churchill explained that the “safety of the world requires a new unity” against the “Soviet sphere.” Building a united approach was not easy, but it was simplified by the lack of good alternatives. Only U.S. military strength could protect Europe against Soviet domination and provide the climate of security in which former foes such as France and West Germany could reconcile. Only U.S. economic assistance could rescue faltering economies. For most of Western Europe, allying with the United States was not just the best option; it was the only option. The task of building this alliance network was simplified by the reality that most of Western Europe embraced—with American help—similar political values and economic institutions. By the mid-1950s, most U.S. allies in Europe were democracies with advanced industrial economies. America’s European allies therefore adopted similar approaches to handling geostrategic, economic, technological, and governance challenges posed by the Soviet Union.

This model succeeded spectacularly in the Cold War. But Beijing is not Moscow with Chinese characteristics.

To deal with the Soviet military threat, the Western bloc established alliances with the United States, most notably NATO. The trans-Atlantic allies addressed economic issues through the Marshall Plan and an array of institutions—the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—that promoted recovery and growth within a capitalist framework. And as the United Nations became paralyzed by Cold War disagreements, the West built regional organizations—such as the European Community—to promote cooperation rooted in common liberal norms. The memberships of these various institutions were never entirely congruent. Yet by and large, the European countries that cooperated most closely with Washington on geostrategic issues were also those that cooperated most closely on economic issues and most fully shared its commitment to democracy.

This model succeeded spectacularly in the Cold War, which is why U.S. policymakers so readily default to it when thinking about China. But Beijing is not Moscow with Chinese characteristics. And the world America inhabits now is not that of the Cold War. Today, there is much less alignment across key issues than there was in Cold War Europe. American allies such as Italy have signed up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Key U.S. partners such as Vietnam are not democratic. Many of the countries most troubled by China’s brutal violations of human rights and individual liberties are not geographically positioned to challenge Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. Barring massive overreach by Beijing, the United States will struggle to create a 21st-century equivalent of the Western bloc. Rather than building a single alliance of democracies, America will need four separate coalitions.


Pedestrians walk in front of a huge screen in Tokyo featuring news of Joe Biden’s win in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8.

Pedestrians walk in front of a huge screen in Tokyo featuring news of Joe Biden’s win in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

The geostrategic coalition

The first coalition is geostrategic and should focus on deterring China from using force or coercion in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s desire to replace the United States as the region’s leading power is a central theme of Chinese statecraft. It underpins a long-running military buildup as well as more recent efforts to coerce neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to India. If China succeeds, it could use its primacy in the Indo-Pacific as a springboard to more expansive global goals. From a U.S. perspective, then, preserving a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific is not sufficient to prevail in the competition with China, but it is necessary.

Washington cannot tackle this, or any other, aspect of the rivalry alone. Fortunately, elements of a geostrategic balancing coalition already exist: The United States has dozens of formal treaty allies in Europe and five in Asia. Unfortunately, these alliances were mostly built to contain Soviet communism and cannot simply be redirected to manage China’s rise. Some allies, including most members of NATO, are physically too far from China to help balance its power in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. Others, such as Thailand, have little interest in aligning squarely against China because they increasingly look to Beijing not only for their prosperity but for their security as well.

The geostrategic coalition should instead comprise those countries that are inclined to balance Beijing where it matters most—along its territorial and maritime peripheries. This list begins with Japan, a major regional power that is fiercely committed to blunting any Chinese effort to overturn the status quo in the Western Pacific. Other U.S. regional allies have critical roles to play as well. Australia is weathering a ferocious pressure campaign from Beijing and has recently revised its defense strategy with China squarely in mind. South Korea has also faced China’s coercive pressure and is increasingly looking to extend its geopolitical influence beyond the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, the Philippines is a more challenging ally, but Manila might return to a firmer stance toward Beijing once Rodrigo Duterte leaves office.

Around this core of allies is arrayed a growing network of security partners. These partners include Vietnam, the most recent country to fight a major war against the People’s Liberation Army; India, a key player in the Indian Ocean and along China’s southwestern border that has been balancing China more in recent years; Singapore, which has quietly emerged as a hub of U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia; and Taiwan, which has more experience than anyone at deterring Chinese use of force and coercion. If China continues to overplay its hand, it might even encourage fence-sitters such as Malaysia and Indonesia to join this coalition in an effort to protect their maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Collectively, these countries would—with U.S. support—create barriers to China’s use of military power on important frontiers. By working together, these countries could ensure that the growth of Chinese military capabilities is offset by the development of a countervailing coalition. And if the balancing coalition shows promise, it could attract countries concerned by China’s rise but unsure of whether their participation would be advantageous. For example, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada possess some power projection capabilities and have shown an interest in resisting Chinese pressure. Over time, they and others might help enmesh Beijing in a geostrategic net that tightens when China engages in the use of force or coercion.

Collectively, these countries would—with U.S. support—create barriers to China’s use of military power on important frontiers.

As the membership of this geostrategic coalition indicates, this would not be an Asian version of NATO. The countries involved are too different—in geography, capabilities, and governance—to create the sort of formal, deeply institutionalized alliance Washington enjoys with Europe. This limits the military interoperability that a NATO-like structure makes possible, but it is also an advantage, because many members of the geostrategic coalition would be averse to aligning more formally against China. Tying these countries together will therefore require more flexible, and sometimes subtler, approaches.

Quiet staff talks about how to help a given member in the event of conflict might be more common than formal security guarantees. New mechanisms would need to be constructed to allow countries to “plug and play” when they desire to take part in an exercise or operation. Multilateral initiatives can start small, as was the case with the Quad (an informal but increasingly ambitious grouping involving the United States, Australia, India, and Japan), which initially coordinated on disaster relief. Members of a geostrategic coalition would align on different issues at different moments, so cooperating creatively will be the key to competing effectively.


A worker stands at a port as a cargo ship is loaded in Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong province, on July 13, 2017. AFP via Getty Images

The economic coalition

Much of China’s geostrategic challenge is rooted in its immense economic leverage, so the United States will also require a new approach to economic competition. At its peak, the Soviet economy was perhaps one-third the size of the U.S. economy. China long ago surpassed that marker, and its economy dwarfs that of any American rival of the past 100 years. Most Europeans now see China as the world’s leading economic power, not the United States. And Beijing is already the primary trading partner of nearly every country in the Indo-Pacific region.

Beijing has turned this economic clout into diplomatic advantage, using trade restrictions to punish countries that criticize its human rights abuses, question its performance on COVID-19, or resist its regional expansion. It is dangling trade, loans, and investment to draw countries into its Belt and Road Initiative, which carries with it China’s economic, diplomatic, and sometimes military influence. And perhaps most concerningly, Beijing continues to engage in a variety of unfair trading practices, from intellectual property theft to massive state-directed subsidies. This state control over economic behavior, and the willingness to leverage it abroad, creates a set of strategic imperatives for the United States and other countries that desire to maintain their freedom of action.

Many countries will need to selectively decouple from China in certain critical sectors to avoid dangerous dependencies.

Countries in the Indo-Pacific that are highly reliant on Chinese trade will need to shield themselves from geopolitical coercion by diversifying their economic relationships. Many countries will need to selectively decouple from China in certain critical sectors—from personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals to components of sophisticated military equipment—to avoid dangerous dependencies. Finally, the United States and its friends must stimulate stronger economic growth to compete with China, lest the balance of economic power shift too far in Beijing’s favor. After the Cold War, Washington pursued economic integration across geopolitical lines, in hopes of making those lines disappear. Now, Washington must pursue deeper economic cooperation within geopolitical lines: It must forge a broad coalition of countries committed to forcing China to play by a common set of rules and otherwise blunting its economic leverage.

The economic coalition would not reside in a single institution or organization. Like the geostrategic coalition, it would consist of overlapping subgroups of countries committed to the basic purpose. The signatories to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—a pact originally meant, in part, to reduce its members’ reliance on Chinese money and markets—would make natural partners. So would Atlantic democracies that have become increasingly disturbed by China’s unfair trade practices and bare-knuckle economic diplomacy. Other nations that stand to benefit from a reorientation of supply chains, such as India, might also participate, as would developing nations seeking to remain free of Beijing’s economic grip. The economic coalition would thus span regions; it would include advanced economies as well as emerging markets.

These countries could pursue a variety of complementary initiatives. A group of more advanced economies could jointly penalize companies that are shown to steal intellectual property or benefit from unfair state subsidies. They might create a system of multilateral controls on sensitive exports to China, similar to the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls during the Cold War. They could also increase and pool resources available for infrastructure investment in developing nations to make it less tempting for key countries to accept disadvantageous deals with Beijing. This effort could build on nascent multilateral initiatives to protect key supply chains, which several Indo-Pacific democracies are already considering today.

Most ambitiously, the economic coalition might pursue trade agreements to boost growth among their members. Rather than reinforce trends toward de-globalization, this might encourage re-globalization on fairer terms. The United States and other countries have already taken initial steps in this direction. Yet the lack of coordination speaks to the fact that the economic coalition has recently lacked its obvious leader. Rather than serving as the linchpin of high-standards economic arrangements, the Trump administration exacerbated divisions within that world, thereby exchanging modest, short-term commercial gains for larger, long-term strategic losses. U.S. leadership is still vital to overcoming coordination problems and catalyzing collective action. Without it, the economic coalition will flounder.


Attendees wait in line for a 5G exhibition at the Qualcomm booth during the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan. 10, 2019.

Attendees wait in line for a 5G exhibition at the Qualcomm booth during the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas on Jan. 10, 2019. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The technological coalition

The geostrategic and economic challenges presented by China’s rise also point to the need for a technological coalition. China’s efforts to overtake the world’s most advanced industrial economies have led the CCP to build “national champions” in key technology areas such as semiconductors, robotics, and information technology. As part of its Made in China 2025 plan, Beijing has used market restrictions and massive state subsidies to create unfair economic advantages. It has also stolen massive amounts of information and technology, estimated at And although the world has thus far focused primarily on 5G networking, there are a number of other advanced technologies—such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, automation, and biotechnology—that will be critical to the industries of the future.

The implications of the Chinese technological challenge are profoundly troubling. If Chinese companies take a commanding lead in constructing the world’s 5G networks, Beijing could gain access to substantial intelligence and economic leverage. Those advantages will only increase if China uses its early lead in 5G to bring additional countries, especially in the developing world, into its technological sphere. Yet the risks go well beyond this particular technology. One of the major difficulties the United States faces in competing technologically is that the scale of the Chinese internal market—and the amount of data available to Chinese firms—creates advantages that no single democracy can match. Similarly, the Chinese government’s investments in many advanced technologies outstrip those of other leading countries.

China’s technological advances could help Beijing catch up to or surpass the United States economically, negating a major advantage Washington enjoyed over Moscow during the Cold War.

Over time, then, the technology race could increasingly impact other areas of competition. China’s technological advances could help Beijing catch up to or surpass the United States economically, negating a major advantage Washington enjoyed over Moscow during the Cold War. Research in AI, machine learning, autonomy, and robotics could eventually translate into an asymmetric military edge for Beijing. As then-U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper remarked in September, “Those who are first to harness once-in-a-generation technologies often have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for years to come.” China might also gain a geopolitical edge through its development and proliferation of techno-authoritarianism. By creating advanced surveillance and censorship systems, the CCP is trying to safeguard its hold on power. By proliferating these systems, it is also helping to entrench autocrats around the world. And as Beijing becomes more technologically sophisticated, it will have greater success in setting global technology standards, such as cyber-sovereignty, that advantage autocrats. Only a collective effort can offset these challenges.

A key objective of a technology coalition should therefore be to collectively accelerate the development and subsidize the adoption of alternatives to Chinese technology, beginning with 5G and expanding into other critical areas. Such a coalition could counteract the inherent advantages of scale and unfair market access restrictions that China currently enjoys. Furthermore, by serving as a sort of common market for advanced technologies, a coalition of this sort could ensure a common set of technology standards, rules, and norms that can protect democracies. Leading countries might also cooperate in efforts to regulate Chinese-owned technology firms operating in democratic countries and to ensure that investments are properly vetted from both an economic and a security standpoint.

Efforts to build a technological coalition should be centered on advanced economies. The G-7 countries—the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, and Italy—all qualify. So, too, do techno-democracies such as Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea, Israel, and Taiwan. The group might also include India, which is less of a technological power but does offer a massive market and has recently become more worried about technological dependence on China. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed one version of this coalition: an expanded G-7 that would promote collective investments in 5G and other emerging technologies, which he has called the D-10. Others have proposed a similar construct but more explicitly focused on technology: the T-12.

The challenges associated with creating such a technology coalition are numerous. Among other things, it would require stronger industrial policies in the United States and some other democracies, as well as greater effort to align those policies. It would necessitate broad cooperation on long-term challenges but also quick action in areas such as 5G, where the window to prevent Chinese control is closing rapidly. Above all, it would demand a multilateral ethos that has been sorely lacking in U.S. policy of late. Yet the idea has nonetheless been gaining traction in high places, including with technology leaders, U.S. allies, the incoming Biden administration, and on Capitol Hill. Given the scope and scale of the technological challenge China poses, creating a technological coalition is not as far-fetched as it might once have seemed.


Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sits in front of NATO and U.S. flags ahead of a bilateral talk with the NATO secretary-general in Munich on Feb. 7, 2015. CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

The governance coalition

Finally, the U.S.-China competition is not just about geostrategic, economic, and technological rivalry; it is also inescapably ideological. As Chinese policymakers and scholars have themselves argued, the CCP cannot feel secure in a world where universal values and a democratic superpower are preponderant. Chinese leaders are thus seeking to fashion a system in which authoritarian rule is protected. They have done so by supporting dictators from Southeast Asia to Latin America, proliferating the tools and techniques of repression to illiberal rulers around the world, and striving for greater control of international organizations that set global governance rules and norms. In response, the United States must rally a coalition of democracies committed to protecting democratic principles and universal values.

This final coalition should be transregional because it is defined by political philosophy rather than geography. Its core members would be the world’s pivotal democracies, principally in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. In this endeavor, countries like Canada and New Zealand would be just as important as larger states like Germany and the United Kingdom, given their opposition to China’s human rights abuses, bullying of democratic countries, and efforts to stifle free speech. The coalition might also draw in other democracies from South Asia, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere, as long as those states are willing to speak up for democracy and human rights, even at the risk of offending Beijing.

This governance coalition would be something less than the global alliance of democracies that Pompeo has proposed. Like the geostrategic coalition, it might initially feature a “coalitions of the willing” approach to key issues, with the hope of building toward more institutionalized cooperation over time. This coalition could, for example, improve the democratic world’s resilience against Chinese political influence operations by exchanging insights on the tactics Beijing has used against Taiwan, Australia, and others and by coordinating multilateral responses. This coalition could also coordinate sanctions and diplomatic penalties for the horrifying abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Not least, it could bring its collective strength to bear in resisting Chinese takeovers of key international organizations—such as the U.N. Human Rights Council—that Beijing uses to defend its authoritarian rule at home and project its autocratic influence abroad.

This coalition would also help put the CCP on the defensive by spotlighting and penalizing the most repugnant aspects of its behavior.

The strategic value of this type of governance coalition would be considerable. By highlighting shared political values, it could help bring new partners into the fold. Many European countries have no interest or ability to balance China in the South China Sea, but they can and will push back against Beijing’s human rights abuses and coercive tactics against democracies. This coalition would also help put the CCP on the defensive by spotlighting and penalizing the most repugnant aspects of its behavior. Finally, forging such a coalition would underscore to audiences around the world that this is not simply a struggle for power between China and the United States. Rather, it is a struggle over the future of the international system and over how people will be governed.

Of course, creating a governance coalition will be difficult. Key democracies have different views of the level of threat from China. And a coalition of this sort would likely exclude key members of the geostrategic coalition, such as Vietnam, in addition to raising tough questions about how to engage backsliding democracies such as the Philippines. Not least, America’s ability to lead an explicitly democratic coalition has come under greater doubt, given that President Donald Trump showed such indifference to the fate of democratic values, both at home and abroad.

Yet these obstacles are not insurmountable. The United States managed to combine values with realpolitik during the Cold War; it waged a deeply ideological struggle against the Soviet Union while still cooperating with friendly autocrats and even friendly communists. A post-Trump America could refocus on rallying the democratic world. Indeed, President-elect Biden has already proposed convening a summit of the world’s democracies in his first year in office. Despite the difficulties of coordinating a geographically and geopolitically diverse group of nations, stark ideological threats such as the one China poses tend to have the benefit of reminding democratic nations that they will hang separately if they do not hang together.


The incoming Biden administration appears to understand all this. Ely Ratner, one of Biden’s leading advisors on Asia, has noted, “there’s a technology competition, a military competition, an economic competition, an ideological competition, and a diplomatic competition.” Biden has placed a premium on devising a strategy for competition that is broadly multilateral rather than abrasively unilateral, particularly when it comes to issues such as technology and cooperation among like-minded countries. There is greater uncertainty, however, regarding whether the United States will make the military investments urgently needed to shore up the geostrategic coalition in the Western Pacific and the political investments necessary to forge deeper trade and investment ties with members of the prospective economic coalition, while simultaneously showing the deft touch required to blend a competitive approach across these issues with efforts to secure cooperation on climate change and other transnational threats.

Washington will fail if it takes a one-size-fits-all approach to coalition building.

The good news is that the United States has all the tools it needs to manage the dangers presented by the growing assertiveness of CCP leaders, the most critical of which is the ability to rally countries to its side on a variety of issues. But Washington will fail if it takes a one-size-fits-all approach to coalition building. Although parts of the Sino-American struggle, particularly the military and ideological rivalries, have distinct Cold War echoes, today’s world is increasingly multipolar, and the competition is highly multidimensional. The challenge China presents demands a concerted, multilateral response. Yet the global environment and the nature of Chinese power make that concerted response more difficult to summon than it was during the Cold War.

The hard truth is that countries around the world may not rally to America’s side on all issues, just because the CCP engages in coercive and abhorrent behavior. Different countries will unite on different issues at different times. Concerted multilateral action will only occur by building a series of overlapping coalitions and asking countries to act on the issues that most concern them. This will be a new challenge, but it will require Washington to revive an older tradition of creative multilateralism that it seems recently to have abandoned. The world will need multiple coalitions to head off the worst potential consequences of China’s rise—and none of those coalitions will succeed without the constructive leadership of the United States.

Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and co-host of War on the RocksNet Assessment podcast.

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