Beyond Taiwan and De-risking: Allied Strategies for Addressing the China Challenge

The most important takeaway of the Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco on November 15 is that it reduced the chances of U.S.-China competition escalating into inadvertent conflict. The need to re-establish direct leader-to-leader and military communications has been made obvious over the past year when a Chinese spy balloon traversed the United States, and according to the Pentagon, at least 180 incidents involving Chinese aggressive tactics against U.S. military planes threatened escalating crises. But there should be no illusion that this summit somehow “reset” the relationship on a cooperative track. As the national security advisers for the United States, Japan, and South Korea prepare to meet this weekend, the template for U.S.-China relations remains one of great power competition. The Biden administration has stepped up to the challenge in several areas—including defense in the Taiwan Strait and consolidating supply chains in semiconductors. But China still poses major threats to the liberal international order that were not resolved by the summit. Indeed, the answer to these challenges lay not in a more intimate relationship with China, but in the capacity of the United States to assemble its allies to step up to the challenge.

Over the past three years, the Biden administration has arguably enacted some of the most meaningful changes in the security architecture of Asia since the creation of the bilateral U.S.-based “hub and spokes” alliances after World War II. It is best described as a “networking” of the traditional bilateral alliance system into plurilateral, functionally based coalitions to deal with different aspects of the China challenge. From groupings of United States, Japan, South Korea Taiwan, and the Netherlands on semiconductors and the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia on nuclear submarines, to the United States, Japan, India, and Australia joining together in the Quad, the United States has impressed skeptics with the ability to get these Asian partners to move away from a traditional hedging position between Washington and Beijing. Within the past year, “hard cases” like South Korea and Philippines have entered into unprecedented bilateral military arrangements and spoken out against unilateral belligerence by China in the Taiwan Strait.

But there is more that could be done. Xi Jinping’s smiles at Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in San Francisco were reserved not for working with the United States on common problems around the globe, but on the more parochial objective of wooing U.S. companies to return to China post-pandemic. Even as Xi dangled the prospect of the beloved pandas returning to the United States, China is building the footings of a new illiberal order using security threats, economic coercion, and disinformation campaigns. Together, the three national security advisers, along with Australia, could work collectively to address these challenges.

Advance a Bilateral Security Declaration

The first challenge relates to military security. While there are many lessons from the war in Ukraine that might deter China from becoming bogged down like Russia, there is one more that might incite Chinese aggression—this is the advantage to be gained by straining the capacity of the United States to manage multiple contingencies at once. The war in Ukraine and the Middle East have caused experts in Asia to consider the possibility of a dual contingency in their region involving Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula that would stretch the United States beyond its limits. Those in Taiwan describe it as opportunistic aggression by North Korea (possibly engineered by China) to distract the United States from Chinese action across the strait. Those in Korea describe it as a window of opportunity for China to act against Taiwan in response to a U.S. entanglement on the Korean peninsula.

To avoid these nightmare scenarios, the Biden administration is rightly conducting a bevy of trilateral exercises with Tokyo and Seoul, even as it helps Taiwan build its national defenses. However, it should encourage South Korea and Japan to cement a bilateral security declaration to strengthen deterrence in the two theaters. This is not a mutual defense treaty like that between the U.S.-Japan or U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance, which could induce entrapment fears, but a political declaration of common security interests similar to what Japan and Australia agreed to in 2007 and later expanded and updated in 2022. In order to highlight the resilience of deterrence across the Korean and Taiwan theaters, the declaration should contain South Korean acknowledgement of the role of UN Command bases in Japan (there are seven) for protection of Korea (in the event of a Taiwan contingency). And it should also contain Japanese support for the strongest possible ROK military force and Japan’s political commitment to bolster peacetime deterrence by the United Nations sending states in order to discourage opportunistic aggression by North Korea if a Taiwan contingency preoccupies the United States and Japan. This type of statement would demonstrate the degree to which the three allies can more effectively counter shared regional threats together than they could apart.

Organize a Counter-Disinformation Program

The second challenge relates to information security. China dominates the information space in the Global South. Currently, China’s CCTV and Xinhua News Agency provides free video and news story scripts to over 1,700 media companies in the Global South that create false narratives about the war in Ukraine (that it was started by NATO and supplied by Japan and South Korea, for example). The United States does not have the capabilities on its own to correct this narrative, and while the military conducts information warfare well, the focus is largely on the battlespace, not civilian space, and it is tactical rather than strategic. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center, whose mission is to counter disinformation, has an annual program budget of just over $50 million. A recent U.S. government report on China’s disinformation estimated the effort in the billions of dollars.

The United States and its allies should come up with an operational plan to combat Chinese and Russian disinformation. American, Korean, Australian, and Japanese news agencies like the Associated Press, Yonhap, ABC, and Jiji Press could provide content that would offset China’s disinformation. Pilot projects show that if given a choice, media companies in lower-income countries will take such legitimate news content over Chinese state media on any given day.

Unite in Collective Economic Deterrence

The third China challenge relates to economic security. Over the past 15 years, China has weaponized interdependence and used economic coercion against over 18 countries and 250 companies. Beijing’s staunching of urea exports (a nitrogen derivative used for fertilizer and for reducing diesel emissions) to Korea and India, and export controls on graphite (used for electric vehicle batteries) are only the most recent examples. This has created a lack of trust in the global trading order and a culture of self-censorship among countries and companies on any policies that might offend China on everything from Xinjiang to Taiwan. China’s economic coercion is a serious threat to the liberal international order as any entity that trades with China will be afraid to cross swords with it. This coercion, along with disinformation, constitutes the foundation upon which an illiberal order could be built.

Right now, Biden’s response to this challenge has focused on building secure supply chains in semiconductors with the CHIPS Act, and imminently replicating this model with artificial intelligence and quantum computing. But it must focus more on deterring Chinese economic coercion. The three allies (along with Australia and other like-minded partners) should form a collective economic deterrence pact that will threaten retaliation against China if they use economic bullying like it did in 2016 and 2017 over the emplacement of a missile defense THAAD battery in South Korea or in 2010 over a territorial dispute with Japan. Together the three allies trade in over 200 items that China is highly dependent on, including luxury goods, solar panels, construction, and batteries (among other items). This gives them leverage to stop future economic coercion by China.

Empower Global Governance Institutions

Finally, the United States should lead an international rethinking of the institutions of global governance. Chinese and Russian obstinance in the United Nations has effectively emasculated the Security Council’s role in this regard. The body cannot even act on the violation of standing UN Security Council resolutions by rogue actors, even though Beijing and Moscow previously supported these resolutions. Increasingly, global governance will shift to organizations of like-minded partners like NATO plus the so-called Asia-Pacific Four (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea). In this regard, the United States and Japan should consider revising the G7 and expanding its membership to a G7 Plus to include like-minded actors like Australia and South Korea, among others. While this body could not pass binding resolutions like the UN Security Council, it could serve as an arena for making consensus statements about illegitimate behavior in the international system, as well as impose sanctions through coordinated policies among its members.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair