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23 June 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 9:04am

Which allies should Joe Biden cultivate to counter China?

The defeat of a landmark voting rights bill threatens to undermine US democracy at home, even as the president promotes it abroad.

By Emily Tamkin

Joe Biden is trying to strengthen the US’s relationship with its foreign allies. This is not a secret, nor is it news. Since before coming into office, the US president has publicly stated his intention to work together with the world’s democracies to counter autocracy and China in particular.

In a speech on the US’s place in the world in February, Biden defined American values as “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”. The idea here is that this is what the US stands for on the world stage (despite its own ability to be hypocritical and cruel). This is what Biden reiterated on his recent trip to Europe. And it is likely a message that his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will repeat on his own European tour this week, where he is expected to stress the values the US shares with its European partners.

Similarly, the idea is that China stands for something other than Biden’s list of values. Those who are proponents of a “liberal world order” led by the US can point to China’s record on human rights within its own country. Or they can cite the demise of Apple Daily, the largest pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong; the Chinese government arrested the paper’s editor-in-chief and top executives, and froze its assets. In his address to a joint session of Congress in April, Biden said, “I pointed out to [the Chinese president, Xi Jinping]: no responsible American president could remain silent when basic human rights are being so blatantly violated.”

There are some who argue that this is the wrong approach, however: that we are in the age of great power competition and so the US must ally itself with whomever it can. Writing in the Washington Post, Elbridge Colby, a deputy assistant secretary of defence from 2017 to 2018, argues that Americans should ensure key markets are not dominated by a “hostile power” that could “use its growth and power advantages to dominate our national life”. To do this, Colby writes, the US must pursue policy by “working with whoever would help achieve US goals”, even if they are not “model democracies”. 

At a panel on great power competition in East Asia that I moderated last week at a global security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, Bruno Maçaes, a Portuguese politician and political scientist, made the same argument: that the Biden administration will need to be more flexible in terms of what kind of countries it works with.

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[See also: the US perspective on the G7, NATO and Vladimir Putin]

There is a certain logic here. If the Chinese government really is such a threat, then shouldn’t we work with others to stop it from dominating the world?

But this leads to a natural follow-up question: why is China such a threat? Is it because it’s an autocracy and a threat to democracy? Or is it because the US does not want China to be the more influential power on the international stage? If the former, then it becomes hard to justify working with and empowering non-democratic nations. And if the latter, then the point of the competition must be queried. If the rules each power is writing are not substantively different, why does opposition matter? 

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If China is going to be countered, it should be because a world in which China is the hegemon would look substantively different. It should be because the US cares enough about something call it liberalism, or norms, or democracy to make economic sacrifices and cooperate multilaterally. Otherwise, it is simply playing the world’s most expensive chess match for the sake of it.

But here, too, we run into a problem. Some of the democracies with which Biden is trying to cooperate are facing their own challenges to democracy – not from foreign powers, but from within. Earlier this year the quality of India’s democracy was downgraded by Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit, and by V-Dem, a Swedish institute dedicated to the study of democracy. The EU is theoretically a staunch US ally, but two member states, Hungary and Poland, announced they would not join a new EU prosecutor’s office, which is to investigate fraud and corruption. If we speak about our shared values, we should at least be able to define what those values are, and question whether we really share them. 

And Biden has bigger problems than Hungary, or even India. The issue isn’t just that some US partners, such as Saudi Arabia, are most certainly not democracies, leaving the US open to charges of hypocrisy. It is also that Biden is trying to rally democracies around the world while democracy in his country is at risk of crumbling. 

Having failed to challenge the legitimacy of an election that did not go their way, Republicans are working to make sure that fewer people can vote against their party in the future. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on 6 January to challenge the results of a legitimate presidential election. That evening, elected members of Congress objected to the certification of certain states’ electoral results. Since then, state legislatures have passed more than 20 laws that will make it more difficult for Americans to vote. Some of these laws are expected to disproportionately impact voters of colour. 

All is not necessarily lost. Federal voting rights could serve as a counter to discriminatory state laws. The For the People Act, for example, which was a Democratic priority, would have expanded early voting and allowed for same-day voter registration, as well as restricting the purging of voter rolls. But while all 50 Democratic senators voted on 22 June to move to debate on the For the People Act, the bill needed 60 votes to proceed. Moderate Democrats, whose votes are needed to change the rule that require 60 votes, the filibuster, have refused to budge. One, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said the filibuster is needed to protect democracy. 

The problem is that democracy isn’t a set of speeches or promises. It is a process, and, ideally, an open and equitable one. If Biden can’t protect and promote it at home, the US has little chance of succeeding in championing it abroad. 

[See also: Can the United States work with India to counter China?]