America Is Alone in Its Cold War With China

If the Trump administration is truly going all-in on competition with Beijing, it’s not clear that Trump himself is fully on board. Nor, it’s now clear, are several of America’s closest friends.

In the contest between the United States and China over who gets to shape the world in the coming century, America seems to be playing to win. But it’s running into a big problem. Despite the global network of alliances Washington has built up, it’s been unable to convince those allies to hop aboard the “great-power-competition” express and leave China behind.

U.S. officials are learning just how challenging it is to persuade friendly nations that America is a reliable partner capable of providing them with viable alternatives to what China has on offer—that the rewards of drawing closer to Washington outweigh the risks of alienating Beijing. That’s in part because of the mixed messages from the American president himself: He’s notoriously iffy about his commitment to allies, even as he often expresses his adoration of the Chinese president (notwithstanding the ongoing U.S.-China trade war).

The consequences of all these doubts have been especially evident in the past few weeks, as America’s closest ally in the world (the United Kingdom) and one of the most pro-American countries in the world (the Philippines) have essentially declared, “We’re good, thanks.”

In not following America’s lead, these allies have set precedents for how countries caught between the superpowers could act in the future. They have also signaled that international relations today are too intertwined, and Chinese power too magnetic, for them to enlist in a U.S.-led coalition and usher in a Cold War–style bifurcated world. If the United States is intent on reconstructing that world, it will likely find itself largely isolated. If the United States wishes to not be isolated, it will have to develop compelling alternatives for allies to stick with it instead of China.

The countermovement against a U.S.-China cold war gained strength in late January, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the United Kingdom would allow the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to provide equipment for Britain’s next-generation 5G mobile network.  

This was a slap in the face to the U.S. officials who had spent months lobbying their British counterparts to ban Huawei because of alleged security risks associated with its connections to the Chinese government. The Trump administration reportedly went so far as to share classified intelligence with the United Kingdom indicating that Huawei could potentially spy on and disrupt foreign networks—a claim Huawei denies.

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Ultimately, the U.K. chose to split the difference between China and the United States. The British government said it would keep Huawei technology out of the most sensitive parts of the country’s new 5G network, but it won’t follow the United StatesAustralia, and Japan in outright prohibiting the provider.

But the fact that the U.K., which famously enjoys a “special relationship” with the United States, went with that option—with intelligence sharing and trade talkswith Washington on the line after Brexit, no less—emboldened other allies. The European Union and France swiftly disclosed similar plans, and Germany looks poised to do the same. Other conflicted allies, such as India and South Korea, are undoubtedly watching the cascade.

For these countries, the benefits of partnering with Huawei—the dominant player in the global 5G market, and also the cheapest because of Chinese government subsidies—are obvious while the costs are more opaque, if no less real. As Johnson put it, “If people oppose one brand or another then they have to tell us what is the alternative, right?”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has recognized this weakness in America’s message to allies, proposing that the U.S. government quickly offer a “market-ready alternative” to Huawei by taking a controlling ownership stake in Huawei’s European competitors Nokia or Ericsson.

But Barr also acknowledged that the Trump administration’s grievances with Huawei are about more than security risks—amounting to a battle over which superpower will dominate the backbone of the future digital economy, with trillions of dollars in new opportunities in play. This is true, but it’s also an admission that is likely to strengthen allies’ suspicions that the United States’ position is really about maintaining America’s technological leadership, not securing partners.

Hence the transatlantic divergence. While the Trump administration claims that a rising China poses an existential threat to American preeminence, my colleague Tom McTague has written, “London appears to have already calculated that China is a land paved with gold it cannot afford to stay away from.”

Many countries around the world are now caught between the United States as their main security ally and China as their top trading partner. And this past week one of those countries, the Philippines, a former U.S. territory, began backing out of its decades-old security alliance with Washington.

President Rodrigo Duterte, a critic of the United States ever since coming to power in 2016, served notice that his government will terminate an accord that governs the rules for U.S. forces participating in joint military exercises and training in the Philippines. The parties may still find a way to salvage the pact before the termination takes effect in 180 days. And even if they don’t, other elements of the military alliance, such as a separate mutual-defense treaty, may endure.

But Duterte’s decision nevertheless constitutes the gravest threat to the alliance in years and jeopardizes the U.S. military’s efforts to deter Chinese aggression in the region. As the Asia scholar Brad Glosserman has written, Duterte’s move was in part motivated by his doubts about America’s commitment to the Philippines’ defense and concerns about antagonizing an ascendant China. In fact, the country’s military chief has suggested that the Philippines could broker new military-cooperation agreements with China despite their maritime territorial disputes. Even if this is just a troll of the United States, it’s working. As Defense Secretary Mark Esper noted, the Duterte government is heading “in the wrong direction.”

But one U.S. official who doesn’t seem especially concerned is Esper’s boss. Asked about Duterte’s announcement, Trump told reporters that he was “fine” with it and even thanked the Philippines for saving the United States “a lot of money.”

It’s the kind of gripe from Trump that countries that share long-standing military alliances with America have grown accustomed to. But now they’re also concluding that despite what administration officials say, Trump himself thinks about competing with China in the narrow terms of not getting fleeced on trade rather than in the broader terms of contending with the Chinese geostrategically as a superpower.

His administration is also torn between the impulse to scale back America’s investments abroad and prevailing over a China that is ramping up its own investments. While China is investing more than a trillion dollars in Belt and Road infrastructure projects across Eurasia, the Trump administration’s 2021 budget proposal suggests setting aside a relatively measly $800 million to provide an alternative to “predatory Chinese international lending.” Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently on a trip to Senegal, Ethiopia, and Angola that is intended, as one State Department official briefing reporters phrased it, to emphasize America’s interest in “dramatically increasing U.S. trade and investment” in these and other African countries. But all three countries have close ties with China, whose diplomatic and economic investments in the region far outweigh America’s.

More broadly, allies are less inclined to side with the U.S. now that they’ve witnessed how major foreign-policy initiatives are no longer likely to carry over from one administration to the next. This is the case even with what is arguably the most bipartisan belief in Washington these days: that competition between a rising China and a dominant United States will define the 21st century. During a recent visit to London, for example, Pompeo described the Chinese Communist Party as “the central threat of our times.” Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’s foreign-policy adviser, told me around the same time that a Sanders administration would consider climate change “the number-one security threat” facing the United States, which would make China, as the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter, a crucial partner. Why go out on a limb and pick a side when one U.S. election could scramble the sides?

In a new report on U.S. policy toward China, the Center for a New American Security noted that while U.S. partners generally don’t want to be part of a new international system led by an authoritarian China, they also cannot ignore Beijing as a mammoth “economic opportunity and geographic reality.” Any American strategy needs to recognize that, the authors advised.

The guidance also came with a warning: “Attempts to construct an explicitly anti-China alliance will fail.” On the day the report was released, the United Kingdom announced its Huawei decision.