America Should Counter China with Multilateralism

By Christopher Ynclan, Jr.

President Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Asia-Pacific leaders in 2021.
Imaged Credit: Tom Brenner/REUTERS

As the geopolitical center of gravity shifts to the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States and China will increasingly vie for influence in an area that is predicted to become home to 52 percent of global GDP by 2050. For the United States, the implications of this competition are not only economic but also concern the security of itself and its allies

While a militaristic strategy may have had its place in the 20th century, it is clear that there needs to be an updated policy that better fits America’s needs in the century ahead.

The U.S. can meet the challenge of a multipolar Asia-Pacific through a new form of containment that relies on a geoeconomic concert to challenge the economic competitiveness of China.

The China Problem 

When the challenge of handling China is discussed within the foreign policy community, the preferred answers are usually either holding Beijing accountable to international trade obligations through a trade war or to contain China through the pursuit of military primacy as a form of deterrence. 

In the face of one of the greatest foreign policy challenges since the Cold War, America needs a policy which does not compromise American economic prospects and can rally regional partners to ensure an open Asia-Pacific through a new regional order. 

China has gradually isolated itself in the Asia-Pacific in 2022 through its belligerent wolf warrior diplomacy and maritime ambitions in the South China Sea.  

Moreover, the recent discovery of Chinese spies attempting to influence American and British lawmakers reveal a strategy to foster an international system that will provide as little resistance to Chinese aims as possible. This has largely proven fruitful in Beijing’s exploitation of the WTO for economic gain.

With China declaring its ambitions to achieve parity with other great powers by 2049, it is imperative for the United States to develop a grand strategy in response. This aim will have to involve the maintenance of integral multilateral institutions and an innovation in government policies. 

Luckily, the framework for this strategy already exists.

The China Solution: The Quad

The cornerstone of this newfound grand strategy will be the formalization of the Quad into an economic partnership between the four states (Japan, Australia, India and the United States) and future members with a headquarters in the Indo-Pacific. 

The Quad’s political economy should be predicated on wrestling foreign investment from the Chinese sphere of influence into the states which will comprise the organization. Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy is a good model. Such an effort would multiply economic linkages within the region while promoting sustainable growth for the states involved.

This can be achieved through an economic strategy that divides Quad states into a two-tiered system. The first tier economies would provide capital and assistance in shifting the production of critical infrastructure away from China and to the Quad countries.

The less specialized economies would specialize in manufacturing sectors. For the Quad to reach its full economic potential, it must take into account the interests of not just the United States but also the other states in the partnership to make them invested.

These less advanced economies could especially focus on manufacturing sectors which will be vital to the fourth industrial revolution, like semiconductors. Economies of the second tier could form the basis for the institution’s technology diplomacy to other regions of the globe. Technology diplomacy through the Quad provides an opportunity to reduce Chinese influence over geostrategic regions along its Belt and Road Initiative

The economic success of the Quad would challenge China both abroad and even at home. The growth driven by Deng Xiaoping’s market oriented reforms has formed the bedrock of the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and this foundation has been built upon by Xi Jinping to create the Belt and Road. 

A slowing of growth due to the Quad would provide a challenge to the CCP’s legitimacy and would prompt a reallocation of treasure towards “public security” to handle dissent. A shift to insular spending in turn would weaken China’s ability to remain competitive in the Indo-Pacific. 

Building a Coalition

The American national security apparatus began the 21st century under the presumption it existed in a unipolar world. The world has changed, so the U.S. must use its privileged position in the liberal international order and superpower status to pursue a farsighted response to an ambitious China. 

A careful maintenance of multilateral institutions with allies, such as the Quad, will allow the U.S. to achieve its goals for competing with China without the decline that has befallen many historical powers due to overextension. 

The United States cannot escape the reality of a multipolar international system. However, China cannot escape the reality that it couldn’t dominate an Indo-Pacific empowered through multilateral economic cooperation. 

As Washington writes its own plan for 2050, this idea of “competitive containment” should guide strategy for the increasingly crucial Indo-Pacific region.

Christopher Ynclan Jr. is a recent graduate from the University of North Texas with a degree in Political Science. He is currently a counterterrorism research fellow at Rise to Peace.

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