America, Hold on to Your Allies. You’ll Need Them.

By Bonnie S. Glaser
June 5, 2018
Ms. Glaser is director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When leaders of the Group of 7 countries meet in Quebec on Friday, the United States can expect a chilly reception. The other G-7 countries — France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan and Canada — have already expressed “unanimous concern and disappointment” with President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum in a joint statement issued by their finance ministers last week.

Beijing can’t believe its luck. First, the United States abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have strengthened America’s ties with China’s major Asian trading partners and provided Washington with leverage to pry open China’s market. Now the tariffs on steel and aluminum — the bulk of which is imported from the European Union and Canada — benefit China by creating discord between America and its closest allies. The isolation of the United States serves to reinforce China’s narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner, and it helps advance Beijing’s goals of weakening governance mechanisms like the G-7 that don’t include China.

Once seen as the standard-bearer of free trade and defender of the rules-based order, the United States is now seen by some of its friends in Asia, too, as a unilateralist disrupter. On Sunday, at the annual security gathering known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen of Singapore criticized the United States and China for undermining multilateral agreements that have benefited the whole region. “If the global commons are not preserved, or worse, fracture into de facto or formal trading and security alliances, then all of us are in for a rough time ahead,” he said.

Pointedly, Mr. Ng noted, “In a reversal of roles with the U.S., it was Chinese President Xi Jinping who champions globalization.” At the World Economic Forum last year, Mr. Xi stood up for free trade and denounced protectionist policies.

Mr. Xi is an exceptionally powerful president, and under his leadership, China poses a range of economic, military and ideological challenges. An effective grand strategy to meet those challenges begins with a counterbalancing coalition that puts American alliances front and center.

The first priorities for this coalition ought to be protecting intellectual property, persuading China to cut back on government subsidies to Chinese companies and pushing back against the Made in China 2025 plan, a road map for the country to dominate the most promising technologies of the future, including robotics and artificial intelligence.

Similarly, China’s aggression in the South China Sea is eroding the rights of countries to exploit resources within their legal maritime boundaries. To defend those rights and freedom of navigation demands active support from like-minded countries, including American allies in Europe.

China is also subverting global human-rights mechanisms and supplanting the concept of universality of human rights with its notion that economic development supersedes individual civil and political rights. Collective action among backers of the post-World War II liberal international order is essential to preserving the rights and institutions that are now under threat.

China is cultivating influence throughout the region through its Belt and Road Initiative, a plan to offer hundreds of billions of dollars in state-backed loans for infrastructure in more than 60 countries, which some warn can lead to an erosion of sovereignty and the risk of debt trap. If America wants to offer alternative sources of financing, it will have to do so through action with its allies and partners.

On cybersecurity, China, with Russia and Cuba, is trying to create a legal framework that ignores international legal principles and enables states to conduct hostile cyberspace operations or use the internet for political ends. Thwarting those efforts is possible only through coordination with allies at the United Nations.

Finally, Beijing is promoting China’s model of state-run capitalism and authoritarian politics as an alternative to free markets and democracy in the developing world. In a speech in May to celebrate Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, Mr. Xi called Marxism a “powerful ideological weapon for us to understand the world, grasp the law, seek the truth and change the world.” To push back against that effort, the United States and its friends must restore confidence in democracy worldwide.

If the Trump administration truly seeks to address the challenges posed by China that are outlined in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, it is essential to temper the president’s unilateralist and protectionist proclivities, rebuild relations with allies and restore American credibility and leadership. Alliances should be at the core of the United States’ strategy to effectively compete with a rising China. Until Washington heeds this advice, Beijing will continue to exploit the opportunities that are falling into its lap.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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