The Biden administration has adopted an overarching strategy of renewing relations with allies and partners to counter China where necessary, while also cooperating with Beijing when it is in the United States’ interest to so. As competition between Washington and Beijing heats up, however, avenues to resolve conflicts peacefully between the two major powers remain limited. A recent USIP report brought together U.S. and Chinese authors to offer recommendations on how the two powers can enhance strategic stability. But how do U.S. allies and partners factor in and what steps would they like Washington and Beijing to take to prevent conflict and manage crises?
This spring, USIP convened a workshop with experts from Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the United Kingdom to share their perspectives on the state of U.S.-China strategic stability and implications for their state’s interests. USIP’s Patricia Kim discusses key takeaways from the workshop.
How do U.S. allies and partners assess the state of U.S.-China strategic stability? What are some key concerns across regions and allies?
Concerns about China’s strategic intentions and its rapidly growing military capabilities, including the expansion and modernization of its nuclear arsenal, have heightened across the board among U.S. allies and partners in recent years. According to recent polling data, negative perceptions of China are at historic highs in many countries, from states in China’s immediate periphery that have long maintained skeptical views of Beijing due to outstanding territorial disputes and past conflicts, to those further afield that once held more benign assessments of China’s growing power until relatively recently. This explains why many capitals, from Asia to Oceania to Europe, have generally welcomed the Biden administration’s approach of working with allies and partners to compete with Beijing and to counter destabilizing aspects of its behavior, while also seeking opportunities to cooperate with China on global challenges.
Nonetheless, experts from allied and partner states note the growing risks of U.S.-China military conflict, and the need for Washington and Beijing to take steps to strengthen strategic stability by reducing the incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis and to engage in the rapid buildup of strategic forces. And they would like Washington to pursue such measures with Beijing while keeping in mind the interests and concerns of middle powers. As one expert who partook in USIP’s workshop put it, allies and partners generally want Washington to adopt a “goldilocks approach.” That is, they do not want tensions between Washington and Beijing to spiral into a crisis and to be caught in a U.S.-China standoff; nor do they want Washington and Beijing to cozy up and cut bilateral deals in a G2-like arrangement, which could undermine confidence in U.S. extended deterrence guarantees and restrict the ability of allies and partners to exercise “middle power autonomy.”
What types of U.S.-China risk reduction and stability measures do allies and partners welcome, and what types of measures might be viewed with concern?
While the balance of measures that are considered “just right” vary across regions, states and even among policymakers and experts from the same country, a state’s national priorities, historical experiences and relationship with China tend to inform its general openness to measures to enhance U.S.-China stability, from bilateral dialogues to arms control. Japan, for instance, sees China as its primary security threat due to China’s growing naval and air presence in the East China Sea and around the disputed Senkaku Islands. As such, many Japanese experts have serious concerns that potential reassurance measures between the United States and China that ease tensions at the strategic level may actually lead to greater regional instability. This theory, known as the “stability-instability paradox,” reasons that an emboldened Beijing may engage in greater aggression at the theater-level without having to worry about strategic-level escalation. This explains why Tokyo has persistently cautioned Washington against explicitly acknowledging mutual vulnerability with Beijing, even if both sides are vulnerable to nuclear attacks in reality. Nevertheless, Japanese experts also stress that many Japanese policymakers and citizens still have a strong desire for stable Japan-China and U.S.-China relations given China’s geographic proximity to Japan and the economic stakes involved.
South Korea, in contrast, is just as apprehensive about China’s growing power and has suffered firsthand the damaging impact of China’s economic retaliation following its decision to accept the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in 2016. However, South Korean experts tend to be less concerned about potential reassurance measures between Washington and Beijing based on the firm belief that better U.S.-China relations are ultimately favorable for advancing peace on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean experts cite their country’s economic dependence on China and desire to enlist Beijing’s help to resolve the North Korean nuclear challenge as reasons why they prefer to see good relations between the Washington and Beijing. They also make the case that if there were to be a war between the United States and China, the Korean Peninsula could be at the front lines of conflict as it once was during the Korean War. Seoul, therefore, generally tends to have less reservations about potential U.S.-China strategic stability discussions provided Washington coordinates with allies before and after its engagements with Beijing, and continues to affirm its extended deterrence commitments.
Australian views of China have changed rapidly in the last few years, especially after becoming the target of Beijing’s economic and diplomatic pressure for leading the call for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, clamping down on China’s influence operations in the country and criticizing China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, among other measures. According to one Australian expert, because U.S.-China competition is now seen as the primary strategic challenge for Australia, there is growing recognition in Canberra of the need to pay greater attention to issues related to nuclear deterrence instead of viewing nuclear weapons exclusively through the lens of nonproliferation and disarmament as it did in the past. Discussions with Australian experts reveal that their state would generally welcome confidence-building and risk-reduction measures between Washington and Beijing, provided these steps do not negatively impact allies' security interests.
While European allies and partners have also grown increasingly concerned with the threats posed by China’s rise and growing U.S.-China competition, they have a more diverse set of concerns compared to their Asian and Australian counterparts. European experts view Russia, not China, as the most significant challenge to regional strategic stability given the direct threat Moscow poses to the continent, and relatedly view the erosion of global arms control treaties in recent years as gravely impacting Europe’s strategic interests. As such, European experts express concerns that U.S.-China strategic competition might reduce the incentives for Washington to accept constraints on its own nuclear and conventional capabilities with an eye on China, which could in turn diminish the prospects for arms control with Russia. Experts from the United Kingdom and France also make the case that significant shifts in U.S. declaratory policy, such as a move toward a no-first-use or sole-purpose pledge, as a means to reassure Beijing would raise alarm in many European capitals. They reason that such changes may need to be compensated by major investments and deployments of nonnuclear capabilities, which could prove to be politically more escalatory than maintaining the status quo.
While U.S. allies and partners have diverse interests and preferences,there is a broad consensus that Washington should seek to advance practical measures with Beijing to reduce the risks of military confrontation and enhance strategic stability, while avoiding symbolic measures that could undercut the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments and inadvertently generate negative impacts on regional and global strategic stability.
What concrete steps can the United States and its allies and partners take in the near term to strengthen regional and global strategic stability?
There are a number of near-term steps Washington and its allies and partners can take to lay the groundwork for strengthening strategic stability between the United States and China.
- First, the United States should:
- Identify issue areas and domains where misperceptions and/or the lack of rules and norms are exacerbating strategic risks;
- Examine existing U.S.-China risk-reduction and crisis-management mechanisms, such as codes of conduct, hotlines and channels of communication to evaluate their effectiveness to date and discuss ways to improve and expand upon such mechanisms; and
- Explore arms control measures that could be pursued with China, including restraint measures the United States is willing to embrace and reciprocal measures it would seek from China in return.
- The next step should involve consultations with allies and partners to share the outcome of such reviews, to solicit their views and concerns, and to discuss potential measures to be pursued before approaching Beijing.
- Finally, the United States should engage China in both bilateral and multilateral settings to advance stability-enhancing measures that can serve as guardrails for the two states to compete and coexist peacefully in the years ahead.