Interests, Not Values, Should Guide America’s China Strategy

Interests, Not Values, Should Guide America’s China Strategy

America should seek to expand its coalition of allies and partners—but based on a country’s ability and will to help address interests it shares with America, not on its history with Washington or the nature of the country’s political regime.

At the same time, though, the United States faces other challenges in the world. There are also Russia against NATO, transnational terrorists, Iran, and North Korea, to name the most prominent. Thus, the prime challenge to U.S. interests is China in Asia—but it is not the only one. But because of China’s power and wealth, the United States simply must play a leading role in blocking Beijing’s pursuit of hegemony in Asia; without U.S. leadership, no anti-hegemonic coalition in the region is likely to succeed. Given the high demands of this requirement, it will have to consume the primary portion of U.S. effort and attention.

Washington thus faces a widening shortfall between the threats Americans face and the resources we have to deal with them. And our focus on Asia will invariably leave exposed flanks. In particular, we will not be able to dedicate the level of resources and effort to the Middle East and Europe that we have in the past. We will therefore need allies and partners to do their part—not just to help defend our interests and enable a concentration on Asia, but to defend themselves. 

How, then, can Washington try to orient its network of allies and partners to meet this standard? 

First, we should seek to add new partners and, where sufficiently compelling, formal allies to increase the cumulative power of our overall coalition, focusing principally on Asia. Second, we should encourage allies and partners to focus their efforts on things they have a strong interest in doing rather than trying to “globalize” our alliances based on notionally shared values. Third, the United States should make it easier—not harder—for our key partners to do the things we want them to do, even if they do not share our political system or values. 

AMERICA SHOULD seek to expand its coalition of allies and partners—but based on a country’s ability and will to help address interests it shares with America, not on its history with Washington or the nature of the country’s political regime.

The contemporary military threats to American interests stem from China across Asia and, to a lesser degree, Russia in Eastern Europe, transnational terrorists largely in the Middle East, Iran in the Persian Gulf area, and North Korea in Asia. Yet the United States’ traditional closest and most significant allies are largely clustered in Europe. The problem is that many of these countries feel quite secure and are little motivated to contribute to more distant threats. This leaves wide areas, such as Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, for which longstanding U.S. alliances are of minimal help.

The natural way to rectify this is for the United States to add partners and, where the reasons are compelling enough, alliances to help address these gaps. Fortunately, there is plenty of opportunity to do so. Many countries that are not our traditional close allies share our interest in checking China’s bid for hegemony in Asia, resisting Russian or Iranian aggression, or combating transnational terrorism. Bound by some degree of overlapping threat perception, we can collaborate more closely with countries like India and Sri Lanka in South Asia; Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia in Southeast Asia; and the Gulf States in the Middle East to pursue our shared goals. Many of these countries are highly motivated to address the threat that bears on them. India, for instance, is directly confronting the Chinese military along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and Vietnam is contesting Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), meanwhile, is playing a leading role in pushing back on Tehran’s ambitions in the Middle East.

It is important to emphasize two points regarding this effort to expand our roster of allies and partners.

First, we should very carefully distinguish between expanding our formal alliances or quasi-alliances from expanding our partnerships. The former should be approached very conservatively, while the latter can be approached more liberally. When we extend an alliance commitment or something tantamount to it (as we have in the case of Taiwan), we tie our credibility to that nation’s fate. We should therefore be chary about doing so. When we add a partner, however, we may have deep engagement with that state and indeed even elect to come to its defense, but our credibility is not tied to it. Washington should thus seek to expand partnerships wherever possible. In particular, we should focus on increasing them in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where China otherwise might have an open field to subordinate states and add them to its pro-hegemonic coalition. We should therefore seek to deepen partnerships with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Second, our effort to expand our network of allies and partners should primarily be focused on states with shared threat perceptions. It has become a commonplace that shared values form the bedrock of our alliances. But while it is true that such values help bind states together, the most effective partnerships generally proceed from shared fears. The best motivator is self-defense; thus, states that have a shared interest in preventing Chinese, Russian, or Iranian hegemony over themselves have a natural alignment with our own interests. This is true whether or not they are democracies.

As such, key allies or partners in blunting China’s pursuit of hegemony could include not only model democracies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, but also semi-democracies like Malaysia and Singapore and even authoritarian governments like Vietnam. And our natural partners in blocking Iranian ambitions in the Persian Gulf include the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other monarchical states. Meantime, most European states are unlikely to add much hard power in Asia or supplant the efforts of the monarchies in the Middle East.

EXPANDING OUR network, though, is not enough. Rather, given the scale of challenges we face, the United States should encourage allies and partners to assume a greater role in handling shared security challenges. This is, of course, the burden-sharing problem—and easier said than done. The reality we need to reckon with is that most countries will only do so much if they do not feel directly threatened. We should acknowledge and work with this tendency rather than vainly try to overcome it.

Instead, we should focus on urging countries to increase their efforts where they will be able to generate sufficient political will to make an effective contribution to shared interests. This would be a change from recent decades for Washington. For years, for instance, Washington urged NATO allies and others like Australia and South Korea to contribute troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; even more recently, it pressed Canberra to contribute to missions in the Persian Gulf. Meantime, Washington urged countries like India and Vietnam to join in sanctions against distant Russia with which those states enjoyed longstanding good relations. In effect, we were trying to “globalize” our alliances and partnerships—to get our confederates to act as if they fully shared our global interests.

We should now approach things differently, focusing on encouraging our allies and partners to act where their own interests already are deep and align with our own. In East and Southeast Asia, given the scale of the threat posed by Beijing, we should concentrate our allies’ and partners’ military efforts on strengthening themselves vis-à-vis China, including readying to defend themselves alongside U.S. armed forces. Japan and Australia can, though, meet a higher threshold by preparing to contribute to a joint defense of Taiwan or the Philippines alongside the United States. Meanwhile, the United States, alongside Japan, Australia, and other wealthy regional confederates like South Korea, should assist states like Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia with whatever means available to bolster their economic resilience and strength in the face of an ever more powerful China.

At the same time, the United States should urge India to concentrate on countering Chinese regional influence in South Asia and adjacent Southeast Asia. This would be different than much of Washington’s past practice, which has urged India to try to project power out of its core region, for instance into the South China Sea, and conform to our line on issues like Russia and Iran. Instead, the United States should aid India in focusing on its own region, including by helping New Delhi support the autonomy of vulnerable proximate states like Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. This will allow the United States to focus more on East and Southeast Asia, where the threat from China is most acute and Washington’s efforts are most needed.

In the Middle East, the United States should urge and support Israel and Washington’s Arab partners to take a greater role in containing Iran, enabling the United States to prioritize Asia. Fortunately, recent moves by the UAE, Bahrain, and hopefully other Arab states to forge links with Israel indicate that a more cohesive regional coalition may be forming that can do just this. The United States should encourage and promote this kind of dynamic in order to reduce its own role in the region.