It is an image that can define a generation. The sight of Hu Jintao, the former president of China, forcibly ushered from the front row of the Communist Party Congress in Beijing, was a feat of political theater — a message of utter ruthlessness and total control by Xi Jinping. Xi loyalists now dominate all top positions in the party. Who can doubt that the Chinese leader intends to rule for life and that he will bulldoze anyone who gets in his way – at home or abroad?
Such scenes from Beijing will reinforce the idea that in the new National Security Strategy that: “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] represents America’s most profound geopolitical challenge.”
At a time when Russia is at war in Europe, it is striking that the US still sees China as the greater threat. The Americans see China as a rival superpower with global ambitions, while Russia is seen as a declining but dangerous power that is increasingly dependent on Beijing.
In its efforts to win what President Joe Biden calls a “contest for the future of our world” with China, the US is increasingly looking to an international network of allies, loosely called the “global west.”
Like the global south, the global west is defined more by ideas than by actual geography. Its members are wealthy liberal democracies with strong security ties to the US. In addition to the traditional Western allies in Europe and North America are Indo-Pacific countries such as Japan and Australia. It is the countries of the global west that are fully participating in the sanctions against Russia. They are also the nations Washington hopes will join the US in an emerging cold war with China.
The sharpest edge of the Beijing-Moscow challenge is military and territorial – with Ukraine and Taiwan on the front lines. But the global west is also increasingly faced with the risk of economic coercion – be it Russia cutting off energy supplies to Europe; or China’s trade sanctions against countries that infuriate it, such as South Korea or Lithuania.
The global west is also increasingly concerned about the risk that China will master the technologies of the future — building what one senior US official calls “a terrifying surveillance autocracy” with global reach.
Signs that the global west is coming together are increasing in number. At the most recent NATO summit, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were invited to participate for the first time. The statement issued after the June meeting was NATO’s first strategic document China as a threat. European navies are increasingly popping up in the Indo-Pacific. The signing of Aukus – a security pact between Australia, the UK and the US – was another signal.
When it comes to economic statesmanship, the main organizing unit is now the G7 group of leading industrial countries. After the global financial crisis, many suggested that the G7 would disappear – supplanted by the G20, including China, Russia and several countries from the south of the world. But with geopolitical rivalry escalating again, the G7 is back. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, recently referred to the group as ‘the steering committee of the free world’.
The original G7, formed in the 1970s, included only one Asian nation: Japan. Formally or informally, the Indo-Pacific members of the global west will also be important partners in a renewed G7.
There is increasing talk within the global west of the need to reduce vulnerability to economic coercion by China, by building supply chains and trade relationships, primarily with friendly, democratic countries. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls this “friendshoring” – a term endorsed by Canada’s deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland in a recent speech.
There is also an effort to push back against China’s growing global presence in infrastructure and technology. At the June summit, the G7 launched a $600bn fund to mobilize investment in global infrastructure. But it threatens to be a decade late and billions of dollars short. China’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched in 2013 and may already be bountiful $4 trillion on global infrastructure projects.
There are also presentation problems. The nations of the global west claim that they are working together to defend universal values and support a liberal world order. But instead, China and Russia present the global west as an attempt to rebuild a hierarchy with its roots in imperialism and white supremacy. Opinion polls in the global south suggest that these Russian-Chinese arguments often find a receptive audience.
Even within the global west, there is a danger that unilateral US actions will alienate some partners. The recent brutal US restrictions on technology exports to China will greatly complicate matters for some of the largest tech companies in South Korea, Japan and Europe. Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, has just firmly reworked his belief in globalization – in what felt like a rebuke to the US.
To keep this new alliance together, the US will have to convince its partners that its deepest fears about Russia and China are justified. This weekend’s scenes from Beijing certainly help.