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.


In Europe, this interest-based approach would be less ambitious than a global, ideological one, but be more likely to pay dividends. The United States should recognize that Europe is unlikely to be willing or able to contribute much to the hard power balance in Asia. Any soft power gains through a Summit of Democracies or the like, meanwhile, are likely to be ephemeral and derivative. The United States should accordingly focus its policy toward Europe on where European interests are most directly implicated vis-à-vis China, and otherwise encourage the Europeans to handle the bulk of their own defense and consume less American diplomatic capital that can then be allocated to Asia.

In the military sphere, the overall U.S. goal should be, while preserving the fundamental U.S. commitment and readiness to contribute to NATO’s defense, to have Europeans shoulder more of the burden of defending the alliance. The reality is that, given the stakes and consequences, the United States must prioritize Asia. The United States must therefore economize in its second theater, Europe. Since the United States will not have a military large enough to mount two major simultaneous wars with China and Russia, this means that it must prioritize Asia, even if war breaks out in Europe. Indeed, even if a war broke out only in Europe, the United States could not take too much risk in Asia and thereby open the way for Chinese opportunistic aggression there. NATO will therefore need to prepare for defense of its European members with an expectation of a more limited contribution from the United States.


In the political sphere, meanwhile, the United States should husband more of its political capital for Asia rather than spend it on Europe. In practice, this means Washington should defer more to European preferences on regional issues, for instance in Central Asia, the Near East, and North Africa, in exchange for Europeans taking responsibility for addressing these challenges. While Washington should oppose a European third pole or equidistance between China and the United States—which by definition implies a distancing and even alienation from the United States—it should support European empowerment and be willing to defer more to Europe’s preferences over issues within its own sphere that do not materially affect Washington’s primary concerns, particularly over China.

The economic sphere is the main arena where Europe, with its large market area, can contribute to Washington’s priority of taking on China. Moreover, while Europe’s direct security interests are less touched by China’s rise, it emphatically does share America’s interest in avoiding a China that is economically dominant and can dictate the terms of global trade and economic activity. Indeed, an economically weaker and more fractious Europe actually has, if anything, more of an interest than America in ensuring it is not prey to Beijing’s economic domination. In light of this, Washington should press Europe to do two things that are in its own interest. First, strengthen Europe’s own resilience against Chinese political and economic leverage, for instance by rejecting Huawei. Second, work to build economic scale with the United States and Asian partners like Japan, India, and Australia in order to develop a market that can match China’s enormous size while ensuring fair and equitable terms among its participants.

Washington should couple its arguments on these issues by making its approach to the European Union (EU) contingent on how Europe responds. If the EU and the leading European states constructively work with Washington and its Asian partners, Washington should be willing to work with and promote Brussels. If, on the other hand, they try to equilibrate between the United States and China by pursuing a “third pole,” as sometimes bruited about by some European leaders, then Washington should work bilaterally or in coalition with more sympathetic European states. Blindly supporting Brussels and further European integration even as Europe undermines primary U.S. interests would truly be “brain dead.” 

FINALLY, THE United States should act to make its network of allies and partners more effective. It has the power to do so in ways that will make a difference. This too requires a break from the past. For many years, the United States used sanctions and restrictions on arms sales and technology transfers as leverage to try to push partners toward domestic political reform or alignment with distant foreign policy goals, for instance against Asian states over Russia. 

This needs to change. Washington needs to strengthen those who will actually help in pursuing our shared interests, most importantly on China but also on secondary threats such as terrorism and Iran. We should build up and enable states willing and able to do so with favorable treatment, including the use of arms sales, technology transfers, and the like—and avoid penalizing them.

In this vein, we must fundamentally move away from using these tools as well as sanctions to try to force key partners to undertake domestic political reform or align on unrelated geopolitical objectives. We must keep our eye on the prize. China is the primary challenge to our interests in the world, including, for that matter, the future of freedom. Our top priority must therefore be to block Beijing from gaining predominance in Asia. This means strengthening states in the region against Chinese power, whether they are model democracies or not.

This is especially important in Southeast and South Asia, which will be key theaters of competition with Beijing, but where—at least according to Freedom House—there are no model democracies. We cannot afford to alienate or weaken these states. Rather, we should seek to encourage their standing strong against Beijing and build their capacity to do so however possible. In this context, Washington should remove penalties and barriers associated with legislation like the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, that inhibits our ability to work with and aid key countries like India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

It is also important in the Middle East, where we have a strong interest in building up the capacity of states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia to shoulder more of their own defense against Iran. Consistent with maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, we should strengthen like-minded countries in the region even if they do not undertake major domestic political reform or align with us on the range of broader issues.

It is worth emphasizing in this context that, while our interests in preventing Chinese hegemony are primarily geopolitical and economic in nature, the reality is that such an outcome would also have major ideological consequences. If China is ascendant in the world, there seems little doubt that authoritarian governments will also flourish. Preventing that outcome requires strong and resolute allies and partners—even if we have (often highly justified) objections to their internal behavior or if their policies do not fully align with ours on other matters. By contrast, the most likely route to enduring liberalization is through succeeding in great power competition—it was no accident that many countries democratized as the Cold War ended.

Meanwhile, if the Europeans are willing to broadly align in supporting Washington’s efforts to balance China, the United States should be willing to support some European positions that it has traditionally opposed. For instance, Washington could take a more receptive stance toward initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative while lowering barriers to purchases of European military equipment and undertaking more ambitious collaborative technology development. These kinds of steps would benefit Europeans but also open up greater efficiencies and economies of scale for the U.S. defense establishment. 

AMERICA NEEDS its allies to do more. That much is clear. The question now is how. The idea of a league of democracies is a stirring answer, but is very likely to be more inspirational than consequential. Washington must instead found its efforts with allies and partners on sturdier, if perhaps lower, ground—that of common interest. With this approach, America can collaborate with a wide variety of different types of states in differing arrangements, bound together by shared fears and organizing based on aligned interests. America can and should still stand for freedom, decent treatment, and republican government, but within the constraints and logic of this overarching interest-based approach—not as a primary driver of U.S. strategy. This approach may move hearts less, but it is more likely to move mind and muscle—and ultimately to better protect Americans’ own freedom and prosperity as well as the autonomy of other countries to chart their own futures free of another’s domination.

Elbridge Colby is Co-founder and Principal of the Marathon Initiative. He led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017–2018. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict from Yale University Press. 

Image: Reuters