China, International Cooperation, and Alliance-building


United Nations Photo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr


Watching a game of football is more fun when you know who is playing. Admittedly, it is even more fun when you know what each side’s strong features are, and what strategies they are likely to use. The same basic principle should apply to the analysis of global conflicts. Not to make them more fun, but to improve analysts’ predictive abilities.


For many observers of international politics, it seems clear that the global conflict that will most profoundly impact international order and influence our futures is that between the United States and China. Under Joe Biden’s presidency, this conflict has been framed as one between “democracy and authoritarianism” (Biden, 2021). This narrative, reminiscent of the Cold War, implies that democracies and autocracies will increasingly band together and form alliances along their respective ideological lines. When this view is pronounced by Joe Biden, it acts as a powerful rallying cry for liberal democracies. But it might also be misleading. Under the leadership of the US, democracies may indeed move towards the creation of democratic blocs along ideological lines, like the recent revitalization of institutions such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, Australian, India and Japan show (Rudd, 2021). However, as will be argued in this post, autocracies do not have the same capacities for forming blocs and alliances. This has profound implications for the types of foreign policy strategies China will choose in the international sphere – and for the way that the EU should approach its relationship with China.


Blocs, alliances, cooperation, and integration

Central to the narrative of a global ideological conflict between democracy and autocracy are the concepts of blocs, alliances, cooperation, and integration. In the discipline of International Relations, a bloc is a group of nation-states that chooses to work as a unit, usually in opposition to one or more other blocs (Masters, 1961). This concept should be understood as an extended form of alliance, as an “alliance of alliances.” Crucially, however, the concept of alliance should be differentiated from the concept of cooperation. States who are allies cooperate, but states who cooperate are not necessarily allies. Cooperation can thus be a feature of any interaction between two or more states. But alliances and blocs imply deeper relationships that may even lead to the political and economic integration of a group of states.


But why do states cooperate or form alliances? Largely because of three reasons: mutual interest, coercion, or common values. Mutual interest can in theory be found between any two states, be they democratic or autocratic. Coercion – defined here loosely as the provision of carrots and sticks – is also used by both types of regimes to achieve their strategic goals. Cooperation based on common values, however, is found more often between democracies than between autocracies (Bank & Weyland, 2018). There are two reasons for this. First, liberal democracies are profoundly ideological. Liberal ideas hold serious normative implications in terms of how we should see the world, how the world should be governed, how nations should be governed, and what role and rights citizens should have. This ideological bedding gives democracies a solid common ground on which to not only cooperate, but also build alliances. Second, authoritarianism is hardly an ideology (Art, 2012). Rather, it is a type of regime defined in opposition to democracy. To a large extent, autocracies are not similar to one another except in that they are not democracies. There are thus no values derived from their political regimes with which they could form values-based alliances, except when their regimes employ similar legitimising ideologies like communism or political Islam. Even then, as the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s shows, values-based alliances are difficult for autocrats to form and maintain.


To be sure, democracies do not cooperate and form alliances with each other solely because of values. Mutual interest and coercion are often primary reasons to join forces, with values an afterthought. But evidence shows that cooperation that includes common values is far more likely to turn into the formation of an alliance or bloc. This is because of the correlation between common values and bilateral trust (Hoffman, 2002). Certain features of democracies, such as a genuinely open market, more transparent processes of decision-making, open political systems, and easier access to information, make them more trustworthy to other democracies. Autocracies, on the other hand, rely more heavily on mutual interest and coercion when they cooperate with other states. This does not always improve mutual trust.


This difference is particularly evident when it comes to integration. Due to the greater mutual trust that comes from common values, democracies are more willing to relinquish aspects of their sovereignty to supranational institutions, thereby making integration possible. The European Union is, of course, the most convincing example. Autocracies, on the other hand, are averse to delegating aspects of their sovereignty to any institution that they do not control. In fact, the “inviolable sovereignty of states” is a rare ideological principle that authoritarians can unanimously agree upon (Navari, 2007), and one that does not facilitate the prospect of integration between autocracies. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), led by Russia, is a perfect example of a union with many autocratic members that has failed to promote anything more than limited cooperation among its members.


Evidence from the past seventy years confirms both the difficulty for authoritarians to build values-based alliances and the strength of democracies at integration. During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union used coercion and mutual interest to build their blocs, usually with economic incentives and/or military threats. But US-dominated institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were also built on mutual trust between members and a willingness to cooperate, coordinate foreign policy, and pool military resources. As a result, these institutions were successful and still exist today. The Soviet-dominated Warsaw pact, on the other hand, was built practically exclusively on coercion, with the threat of military action being undertaken against an unwilling member always looming. As a result, it fell apart as soon as the Soviet Union could not maintain its coercion.

Today, liberal democracies take part in all kinds of military and economic alliances: NATO, QUAD, AUKUS, the Five Eyes, and many more. Institutions to promote cooperation between autocratic states, such as the EEU, have instead been far less successful at integration and trust-building, even though they have helped the realisation of some mutual interests. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), for instance, in which China takes part as a leading member, has been unable to foster military alliances between its members despite its intention to do so, even though it has resulted in limited military cooperation. Due to a lack of mutual trust, its members have been unwilling to pool military capacities or share intelligence information, and the institution has instead transitioned into being one focused mainly on countering terrorism, which is a mutual interest, and promoting trade, another mutual interest.


From a theoretical perspective, this thus means that if the world is to develop into a US-bloc and a China-bloc, the latter is far less likely to be able to build alliances with the promise of integration – and thus to form an actual bloc – than the former.


Implications for Chinese foreign policy

The implications to be derived from this theoretical argument, however, are not as obvious as they seem. A tempting conclusion would be that democracies will be “stronger” than autocracies due to their capacity to unite. But this would be a misleading assumption to make. Relationships between states that are based on mutual interest can be just as powerful or long-lasting as ones based on shared values. China and Russia, for instance, cooperate in a wide array of areas, especially in the United Nations, despite no ideological alignment and repeated claims by established scholars that the two do not trust each other (Lo, 2020). There is also doubt about whether democratic alliances will be all that reliable, despite the presence of common values, due to the inclination of democracies for putting economic interests above other concerns.


The implication to be derived from this is instead that liberal democracies and autocracies – spearheaded by the US and China - will employ different strategies to compete against each other. In fact, while Joe Biden has been busy revitalising democratic alliances with key partners such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, or the EU, China has not been “rallying autocracies” to its cause. Instead, China is likely to employ a two-pronged strategy with regards to international cooperation and alliance-formation. First, as we have already seen with the “win-win cooperation” mantra, China will seek to build bilateral and multilateral partnerships with states based on mutual interest, using its economic weight as leverage. Second, worried about the prospects of an anti-Chinese democratic alliance, China will increasingly follow Russia’s lead in attempting to disrupt democratic alliances and destabilize democracies from within. In short, while the US is likely to focus on alliance-building and bloc-formation through a combination of mutual interest and common values, China is likely to focus on bi-and-multilateral cooperation frameworks based on mutual interest and coercion on one hand, and on bloc-disruption on the other.


The Chinese two-pronged approach is already there for us to see. Within the European Union and its neighbourhood, the 16+1 framework and investments in Greece or Serbia have created powerful cheerleaders for Beijing that prevent a united front in the EU’s China policy. This, together with the EU’s insistence on keeping economic and security interests separate, contributes to the latter’s ambiguous position towards China, seeing the People’s Republic as a partner, rival, and competitor at the same time (Brown, 2021). More worryingly, China will most likely continue its hybrid warfare efforts to undermine trust in democracy within EU member states. It will continue disseminating disinformation and propaganda through its state-owned outlets China Global Television Network (CGTN) and Global Times, emphasising European failures on the Covid-19 issue, highlighting the failures of democracy around Europe, and encouraging populist trends (Rawnsley, 2015). Through its Confucius Institutes, to give another example, China is likely to continue attempting to censor academics and universities who address contentious topics such as human rights, Taiwan, or Hong-Kong. These tactics, also espoused by other autocracies like Russia and Iran, will only increase in sophistication and intensity over time.


Of course, this trend in Chinese foreign policy is both well-known among many EU policy makers and well-documented; notably by the EUvsDisinfo project. Currently, EUvsDisinfo deals mostly with disinformation from Russia, but discussions are ongoing to start looking at China as well. Because autocracies are worried about the potential of democracies to create strong, value-driven coalitions, China will seek to undermine these coalitions both by luring away some of their members – like it has been doing in the Balkans and Eastern Europe - and encroaching on democratic trust from within through hybrid warfare.


What can the EU and its member-states do?

What the EU and member states should not do is adopt an eye-for-an-eye policy and try to disrupt China’s partnerships with other countries. This would be difficult to do, and largely pointless. For example, as long as China and Russia have a mutual interest in leveraging each other’s position for greater weight on the international stage, one will not be easily lured away from cooperating with the other, especially if the underlying wish in Europe to see these regimes eventually transition to democracy – something that both China and Russia see as an existential threat (Friedberg, 2017) – remains. “Undermining autocracy” by promoting democratic trends from within China, will have little effect too, and could even end-up having the opposite effect of encouraging autocratic resilience (von Soest, 2015).


Rather, the EU and member states should strengthen themselves by presenting a more united front at the international level and revitalise trust in democracy at the local levels. Of course, this is easier said than done. But in some parts, the EU has already started moving in the right direction. Below are some general pointers as to what can be done, and how.


The EU should follow the US’s lead in promoting and expanding democratic alliances in the fields of trade and security. This means consolidating NATO and strengthening the EU’s bilateral relationships with other democracies. The EU should particularly focus on its relationships with like-minded partners outside the “global North.” Avoiding western-centrism would provide the EU with greater legitimacy and credibility, showing that liberal values are truly universal. This means that the EU should seek greater cooperation with democratic-leaning states in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Deepening cooperation with Taiwan and encouraging its inclusion into international organisations would be risky – but it should be considered.


The EU should part ways with the current ‘unanimity’ and ‘veto’ principles in its foreign policy making. This would facilitate the EU’s ability to present a united front when dealing with China, instead of having to compromise its position because of in-house competing interests.

The EU should decrease its vulnerability to over-dependency on autocracies since this also prevents the formation of a united front. This means reconsidering the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, and the Nord-Stream project with Russia – and more generally striving to put human rights concerns above economic interests when dealing with autocracies. Of course, this means that the EU and its member states should be prepared to take an economic hit. Lithuania, for instance, pulled-out of the 16+1 framework (previously 17+1) in May of this year, citing human rights concerns as a reason and calling the framework “a divisive project” (Lau, 2021). This hurt its trade relations with China, and yet there has been no economic downfall for Lithuania, showing that this is a principled policy approach that is worth taking.


The EU should strengthen its ability to fight-off disinformation and should involve big tech-companies in this process. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a positive step in the right direction, but more should be done to ensure that social media platforms do not become spaces for state-sponsored disinformation. In addition, there should be EU-wide regulations as to the reporting standards to be respected of foreign media companies.



Lukian is currently a PhD researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. His research focuses on the behavior of authoritarian regimes China and Russia in global governance, particularly in the field of human rights. You can find him on LinkedIn and at GIGA.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.



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