‘Preserving a favorable balance of power against an aggressive adversary is the best means of deterring war, not an incitement to it,’ writes Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
- True or not (and many don’t believe this describes how international relations really work), we are seeing a return to alliances – a key balance of power tool – in the convergence of powerful countries aligning against what they increasingly see as an ‘aggressive adversary,’ China.
Whether you view it as an aggressive adversary or a nation asserting itself in ways commensurate with its rising status, China is creating risks – some subtle, some obvious - that, along with reactions of the U.S. and its allies, have to be factored, into every related business, investment, and policy strategy.
- And the geopolitical response to the biggest risks is a return to balance of power in international affairs.
As Kathryn Judge of Columbia Law School notes in her excellent, ‘The global economy needs to be better prepared for the coming storm’: ‘The final lesson from finance is the value of “stress testing”—trying to work out just how a firm would fare in an adverse scenario before anything bad actually happens.’ For example,
- ‘What would happen to a firm’s operations and finances if China invaded Taiwan and all trade between America and China temporarily ceased?’
Along with ‘stress testing’ such a scenario, you also have to estimate the chances of its occurring.
- For major events like the invasion of Taiwan, calculating those chances depends on how the balance of power between the U.S. and China is working at any given time.
For that reason, executives, investors, and policymakers should be tracking the way alliances are being built on both sides, and assessing how effective they are in maintaining peace and stability – or not.
- Here are some background and thoughts to help you track and assess.
1 | Biden’s Partner
During the Trump administration, with its lack of interest in strengthening U.S. alliances, power was balanced by the U.S. alone versus China.
- President Biden, of course, has taken a different path.
His success in pulling in U.S. allies to face off with China is a tribute to good policy and good diplomacy.
- But Mr. Biden has had a great partner: Xi Jinping.
When I talk with my Chinese counterparts, they often assert that the U.S. is the cause of deteriorating relations.
- If the U.S. were a better actor, they say, it wouldn't have the need to forge alliances to counter China.
This point of view is well-expressed by Peking University’s Wang Jisi in his Foreign Affairs essay, ‘The Plot Against China?’
- ‘The conventional wisdom in Beijing holds that the United States is the greatest external challenge to China’s national security, sovereignty, and internal stability.’
- ‘Most Chinese observers now believe that the United States is driven by fear and envy to contain China in every possible way.’
- ‘And although American policy elites are clearly aware of how that view has taken hold in China, many of them miss the fact that from Beijing’s perspective, it is the United States—and not China—that has fostered this newly adversarial environment, especially by carrying out what the CCP views as a decades-long campaign of meddling in China’s internal affairs with the goal of weakening the party’s grip on power.’
Mr. Wang continues: ‘In the United States, China’s rise is a source of neuralgia and anxiety.’
- ‘Unsurprisingly, in China, the country’s growing status is a source of confidence and pride.’
‘ “As the world faces unprecedented turbulence,” Xi told a group of high-ranking CCP officials in January, “time and momentum are on China’s side.” ’
- ‘Chinese officials seem to feel increasingly emboldened in confronting Washington.’
- And Washington’s allies.
2 | We’re all bewildered.
But it’s not the confrontation itself but the nature of the confrontation that is persuading U.S. allies to band together.
As John Pomfret notes in one of my favorite essays, ‘China’s biggest global foil is often just China’:
- ‘Across the globe, Xi’s diplomatic representatives in Europe, Beijing, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, are lifting up rocks and smashing their own feet.’
‘The Chinese have termed these type of interactions “wolf warrior” diplomacy, inspired by a shoot-em-up action film of the same name.’
- ‘China’s wolf warriors might play well in Beijing, but across the globe China’s envoys are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.’
‘The moves are befuddling — with a buoyant economy and a practically covid-free country [this was written in 2021], China is poised to see its influence rise if it plays it smart.’
- ‘But it’s not; instead, it’s alienating individuals and nations across the world.’
‘I’ve been studying China for my entire adult life, and I have to admit to being bewildered by China’s performance.’
- ‘But I’m in good company.’
‘Thirty-one years ago, the great political scientist Lucian Pye wrote:’
- ‘ “Just when all appears to be going well, Chinese officials create problems for seemingly unaccountable reasons.” ’
Mr. Pomfret writes that China’s ‘goof ups’ are ‘a string of diplomatic misadventures that have become a hallmark of the rule of Xi Jinping.’
- And I would add to those diplomatic misadventures, another string of misadventures from aggressive moves from Taiwan to Hong Kong to the East and South China Seas and beyond.
In other words, Mr. Xi is either annoying or scaring the bejesus out of countries - all at costs that seem to outweigh any benefits.
- Without Xi Jinping, Biden wouldn’t have been able to bring on U.S. allies and strengthen the balance of power in the U.S.’s favor.
3 | Case study: The EU
I have been tracking EU-China relations for some years and really didn’t think the Europeans would ever get on board with the U.S. in countering China.
- Leery of being caught between the U.S. and China and of having its substantial economic ties with China harmed, the EU took a middle path.
- No more.
‘The past two years have seen a major shift in Europe’s China policy,’ notes Philippe Le Corre in ‘Europe’s China Policy Has Taken a Sharp Turn. Where Will It Go Next?’
- ‘Brussels no longer separates economic issues from human rights and values.’
As a result, says Ian Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations in ‘Has China Lost Europe?: How Beijing’s Economic Missteps and Support for Russia Soured European Leaders’:
- ‘Europe has become one of China’s biggest foreign-policy headaches.’
- ‘In part, the current situation is a result of economic miscalculations by both sides, which overestimated the potential benefits of the arrangement.’
‘But China’s increasingly rigid position on Taiwan has made things worse.’
- ‘The Chinese government has retaliated against Lithuania for giving a small amount of symbolic recognition to Taiwan; and over the past year, it has made threatening noises toward other European governments over the same issue.’
- ‘Amid these souring relations, China’s support for Russia in Ukraine has brought its European troubles to a head.’
‘The stakes are not small.’
- ‘The war in Ukraine has exposed how few allies China has and how badly the Chinese leadership miscalculated in pursuing close ties with Russia.’
- ‘Beijing’s heavy-handed efforts to gain leverage in Europe have also backfired.’
- ‘Even as its economy and growing military strength guarantee it power and attention, its failed European project has underscored its inability to win durable partners among the advanced democracies—a pattern that seems likely to hinder its long-term influence in the world.’
And to shift the balance of power.
- Add Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the rest – along with the reinvigoration of the Quad and the new ANKUS alliance - and it’s destined to be a big shift.
4 | Even NATO is riled up
Mr. Xi has even got NATO – charged with defending Europe – riled up. As Bloomberg reports:
- ‘In Madrid at the recent NATO summit, a preoccupation with China was evident.’
‘The meeting featured the remarkable presence of leaders from non-NATO members Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.’
- ‘All of them have something in common: China.’
- ‘With those nations represented, NATO for the first time singled out China as one of the alliance’s strategic challenges.’
That singling out came in the ‘NATO 2022 Strategic Concept’ released at the summit.
- This is the first time that NATO has explicitly announced its intention to oppose Chinese “challenges.”
- And the China part of the paper, below, is the toughest ever.
‘13. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.'
- ‘The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.’
- ‘The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security.’
- ‘The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains.’
- ‘It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.’
- ‘The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.’
‘14. We remain open to constructive engagement with the PRC, including to build reciprocal transparency, with a view to safeguarding the Alliance’s security interests.’
- ‘We will work together responsibly, as Allies, to address the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security and ensure NATO’s enduring ability to guarantee the defence and security of Allies.’
- ‘We will boost our shared awareness, enhance our resilience and preparedness, and protect against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance.’
- ‘We will stand up for our shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation.’
As The Brussels Times says in ‘NATO labels China threat to global security’:
- ‘The European Union as previously described China as a “systemic rival” to the bloc, while the UK has opted for “systemic competitor.” ’
‘NATO has now upped the rhetoric, directing labelling the PRC as a challenge to be confronted.’
- ' “We will work together responsibly, as Allies, to address the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security.” ’
When I used to negotiate multilateral treaties and conventions, we could spend a couple of weeks coming to agreement on one word.
- So while these seem like ‘so what?’ changes, I have no doubt they represent intense wrangling among NATO countries – and wouldn’t have been possible if those countries did not themselves feel the threats from China as laid out in the paper.
The other side of the balance of power, China, is a different - and more difficult - story.
5| ‘China’s Search for Allies’
China has taken a different path from the U.S.
- In her 2021 essay, ‘China’s Search for Allies,’ written before the invasion of Ukraine and China’s support for Russia, Patricia Kim of Brookings, explains that difference.
‘The United States’ network of alliances has long been a central pillar of its foreign policy—and, as competition with China has intensified in recent years, held up as a major U.S. advantage.’
- ‘China, by contrast, has shied away from formal alliances, based on its supposedly distinct view of international relations and a pragmatic desire to avoid the risks of entanglement.’
‘China has avoided building a traditional network of allies thus far for reasons ranging from long-standing ideological inclinations to hardheaded strategic calculation.’
- ‘Since the early days of the People’s Republic, Beijing has sought to portray itself as a leader of the developing world and a proponent of Non-Aligned Movement principles of noninterference and anti-imperialism.’
‘In more recent years, Chinese leaders have begun to insist that they practice a “new type of international relations,” eschewing traditional power politics in favor of “win-win cooperation.” ’
- ‘Such language is meant to bolster the narrative that China’s rise should not be feared but be welcomed as a boon for global development and prosperity—and to distinguish Beijing from Washington, which Chinese leaders frequently criticize for maintaining an outdated “Cold War mentality.” ’
‘Today, China has only one formal ally—North Korea, with whom it shares a mutual defense treaty.’
- ‘But it has dozens of official partnerships with states around the world.’
‘At the top of the pyramid are Russia and Pakistan (whose extra-special ties with Beijing are denoted by long and exclusive monikers, “China-Russia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era” and “China-Pakistan All Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership”).’
- ‘Then come several Southeast Asian states—Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos—as well as states farther afield, such as Egypt, Brazil, and New Zealand.’
- ‘Beijing has also invested great energy into building Chinese-led multilateral mechanisms, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.’
‘In addition to such public diplomacy efforts, Beijing’s alliance-shy posture reflects a strategic decision to build relationships centered around economic ties in its quest for power and global influence.’
- ‘This is not to say that China uses only economic statecraft to advance its objectives.’
‘In fact, China has rapidly expanded its military capabilities over the last two decades and used its newfound might to intimidate Taiwan, jostle with India along a disputed border, and press its sovereignty claims in the East China and South China Seas.’
- ‘Nonetheless, while Chinese leaders consider military power essential for protecting their homeland, core national interests, and citizens and investments abroad, they have demonstrated little desire to take on external security commitments that could drag their country into far-flung conflicts.’
‘Beijing has bet instead that offering loans, investments, and trade opportunities, and doing business with any sovereign entity, regardless of its character and track record at home, will win China friends and influence.’
- ‘And this strategy has paid off.’ [If maybe less so since this analysis was written.]
‘In the near term, China is unlikely to abandon its geo-economic strategy for dominance altogether.’
‘But there are two possible scenarios that could drive it to build a bona fide network of allies:’
- ‘If Beijing perceives a sharp enough deterioration in its security environment that overturns its cost-benefit analysis on pursuing formal military pacts; or’
- ‘If it decides to displace the United States as the predominant military power, not just in the Indo-Pacific region, but globally.’
‘(These two scenarios are not, of course, mutually exclusive.)’
‘Chinese leaders may come to such conclusions if they assess that the Communist Party’s core interests, such as its hold on power at home, authority over Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and claims of sovereignty over Taiwan would be untenable without striking formal defense pacts with key partners such as Russia, Pakistan, or Iran.’
- ‘In fact, Chinese assessments have already begun to move in this direction.’
Given the hardening of U.S. alliances to counter China, I am a little surprised that move isn’t in full gear.
- But even if China entered into full on alliances with, for example, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran, their combined economic and military heft is no match for the U.S., the EU, the UK, Japan, Australia, South Korea and the others taken together.
6 | Deterrence or incitement
As noted at the beginning: ‘Preserving a favorable balance of power against an aggressive adversary is the best means of deterring war, not an incitement to it.’
- Conversely, a nation which feels the balance of power slipping away may feel it has to act while it still can.
Either way, the U.S.-China balance of power will create or mitigate geopolitical risks.
- Well worth the work to track and assess each side's moves and countermoves.
7 | Tracking & assessing the shifting balance of power
Here are a couple of ways I track and assess how the balance of power is shifting,
Watch for announcements like the ‘NATO 2022 Strategic Concept’ and compare them to earlier ones.
- In this case, have a look at NATO’s ‘Brussels Summit Communiqué’ from 2021, sections 55 & 56, and you will just how much views about China have hardened in just a year.
And watch for the actions of individual countries.
- Right now I watching to see how South Korea’s China policy changes under the new president.
- And I am especially watching South Korea and the Quad. [Great analysis on this: ‘Expanding Engagement among South Korea and the Quad Countries in the Indo-Pacific.’]
On this side of the power balancing, there are a lot of moving parts – and a lot to follow.
- But by tracking these you will be better able to understand how geopolitical risks ebb and flow and to make better plans.