Zhou Bo: Why Joe Biden will struggle to rebuild the decaying transatlantic alliance to counter China

  • The countries which could not wait to congratulate Joe Biden on winning the presidency are America’s allies. This should be no surprise. In the past four years, Donald Trump’s “America first” policy and his alarming words to Nato have unnerved them all. They could only rejoice to embrace a man who said: “We’re going to be back in the game. It’s not America alone.”

    According to the Financial Times, the European Union has recently drafted a plan to call on the United States to seize a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to form a new global alliance, burying the tensions of the Trump era and meeting the “strategic challenge” presented by China.

    This is probably easier said than done. The damage done to transatlantic ties is not a hairline crack that can be easily filled. Trump is the rare US president who called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation “obsolete”, but he is certainly not the first one who fretted that Europe had been getting a free ride on the US security umbrella for too long.

    The only difference is that his relentless ally-bashing, however unbecoming of a president, has worked. Now, eight Nato countries – compared to four by the end of the Obama administration – are meeting the target of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence. It remains to be seen if a “good man” like Biden, as George W. Bush has called him, could do the same.

    To some extent, the success of transatlantic relations rests on America’s willingness to give its allies a free ride. When the Soviet threat collapsed, Western solidarity started to fray. Although America and Europe still share some common goals, they are of a different order of urgency and seriousness. When it comes to American entrenchment, Europe is no longer a priority.

    And the more the allies pay their dues, the quicker the US might shake off its responsibilities and withdraw from Europe.

    There are only two scenarios in which the US-led alliance could be strengthened. The first involves American allies joining the US in confronting China – America’s primary competitor. But China is the largest trading partner of almost all the US’ European and Asian allies. Brussels and Washington can hardly bury the hatchet both between the transatlantic powers and within the European bloc when it comes to dealing with China.

    For Washington’s allies in the Indo-Pacific, it is one thing to sing the American chant of “freedom of navigation”; it is quite another to take on the world’s second-largest economy. Take Australia, for instance. About a third of its total exports are destined for Chinese shores.

    In the second scenario, China and Russia forge an alliance, triggering a new cold war. Beijing and Moscow are becoming ever closer, partly because both have been cast as Washington’s primary competitors. Therefore, any pressure from Washington on Moscow will only drive Russia closer to China, and the same goes for Beijing.

    Not only do China and Russia conduct joint exercises on an annual basis, in recent years they have also launched anti-missile war games, and carried out a joint strategic air patrol.

    Asked in October whether a military union between Moscow and Beijing was likely, Russian President Vladimir Putin replied that “we don’t need it, but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it”.

    The value of a US-led alliance is more political than military. The primary objective of Nato, as indicated on its website, is to promote “democratic values”. But China has shown no intention to challenge any Western values.

    China has made it clear that it won’t export its ideology or development model. Although China already has global influence, it is felt primarily in economic sectors. The People’s Liberation Army has increased its activities overseas, but these activities are so far restricted to humanitarian areas.

    The challenge China poses to the West is not ideological; rather, it is psychological: how can an “authoritarian” state develop so quickly, perhaps even becoming the world’s largest economy one day? The short answer is: because China’s rise is from within.

    As the largest beneficiary of globalisation and the market economy, China has no need to challenge the current international system. Beijing is only proving that not all roads necessarily lead to Rome, and that those with different development models and values can still succeed.

    The problem with the West is that it has narcissistically equated the seven decades after World War II with “the liberal International order” and wants the order to continue. But there is no such order, even if most of the institutions and regimes were indeed designed and built by the West after the war.

    It must be noted that major events such as the independence of more than 50 African countries, the rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and the rise of China, to name just a few, have also reshaped the international order since 1945. China’s and Russia’s veto power on the UN Security Council also matters in no small way to international security.

    What appears to be a liberal international order, at best, really lasted 15 years or so: a fleeting period when the influence of the West was overwhelming, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and before China’s rise entered full swing.

    When small nations hang together against a major external threat, it is perfectly understandable. But if the strongest nation on Earth feels a need to strengthen an alliance, it is rather baffling.

    James Buchanan, the 15th American president, once said: “To avoid entangling alliances has been a maxim of our policy ever since the days of Washington, and its wisdom no one will attempt to dispute.” It is ironic to see how far America has gone in the opposite direction.

    Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (retired) is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University, and a China Forum expert

    This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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