Uniting democracies in defence of shared interests and values will be the cornerstone of US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, showcased by his ambitious Summit for Democracy, to be held later this year. Biden wants the gathering to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda”.
Critics have panned the idea, arguing the US needs to get its own house in order first and that the summit risks deepening divisions between democratic and non-democratic states, hindering co-operation when it is needed most. But these criticisms ignore the upside. Biden’s success would help Australia and fellow democracies fend off the growing challenge to our security and institutions from the authoritarian, state-dominated model that China promotes. Maintaining our prosperity and autonomy in the face of China’s power trading will require collective action as well as self-help. Despite its myriad problems, the US remains the only country with the convening power to rally the democracies to resist coercion and reverse the troubling global decline in political freedom and civil liberties.
Achieving these ambitions will depend on Biden’s ability to find common cause with a Europe that is every bit as divided as the US, especially on China. It’s true that anti-China sentiment is on the rise in Europe as members states are subject to Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomacy and coercive behaviour. Like their Australian counterparts, some European political and business elites mistakenly believe they can have their cake and eat it, too.
Germany is a prime example. As the continent’s largest economy, it sets the tone and direction of policy in the EU. The problem is that Angela Merkel’s Germany is compromised by the car industry’s reliance on the China market and is yet to understand that Xi Jinping aims to make Germany a vassal, not a partner. Pushed by Germany, the EU signed a bilateral investment deal with China in December only weeks before Biden was sworn in as President, ignoring a plea from incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan to consult with the US on their “common concerns about China’s economic practices”.
The UK’s decision to defer the mooted expansion of the G7 group of industrialised countries that would have included Australia, South Korea and India underlines the challenge of developing a united front of democracies in the face of China’s economic power. Italy, which has signed up to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, reportedly opposed the expansion for fear of offending Beijing.
Still, Europe is a key battleground and must be won over. European nations were foundation members of the US-led liberal democratic order that rose from the ashes of World War II. If the UK is included, their combined economies are bigger than China’s. Beijing would find it much more difficult to coerce its way to pre-eminence if confronted by a united Europe and the US. This is an achievable outcome with nuanced and persuasive American leadership that eschews Donald Trump’s big-stick approach and concentrates on winning hearts and minds.
The door to rapprochement is ajar and Biden must be encouraged to push it open. Europeans are beginning to align with Australia and the US in pushing back against techno-autocracy. Chinese telecommunication company Huawei, which once looked likely to provide the core technology for Europe’s 5G rollout, is slowly being sidelined. All European states, except Hungary, have joined the US-led trusted technology Clean Network, designed to protect the digital infrastructure of democracies from capture.
Despite this progress, Biden must be careful to ensure his Summit of Democracy is promoted as an opportunity to build consensus on how best to strengthen and protect democracy rather than as an attack on China. Europeans are unlikely to sign on to an anti-China grouping for fear of jeopardising their trade and investment ties with the only economy still in the black after the COVID-19-induced recession.
The best way to allay these concerns and respond to jibes that the summit will be nothing more than a talking shop is to reverse the democracies’ atrophying manufacturing and technology base. Neglect of this base is the root cause of China’s domination of many industries and ability to create economic dependencies. Outcompeting China is the way forward.
Biden’s decision to review US supply chain vulnerabilities is a good start. The review will cover many of the sectors in which the US and Europe were once ascendant before ceding control to China. They include semiconductors — the brains and nervous systems of computers — medical equipment, high-capacity batteries and rare earths. A later, more thorough review will cover broader technology vulnerabilities and food production. China plays a long game, so the administration will have to master chess as well as walk and chew gum, to paraphrase Katherine Tai, Biden’s pick as trade tsar.
Small, focused coalitions of the willing on specific issues will be more efficacious than an unwieldy grand alliance of democracies susceptible to China’s wedge tactics. As a practised user of united front strategies, Xi understands the danger of a united front of democracies and will do everything he can to prevent its formation.
We should support Biden’s Summit for Democracy and an action agenda that plays to our interests and strengths. Scott Morrison wants Australia to be a world-class medical manufacturer building on our research excellence. We are already a producer of high-quality food, rare earths and lithium. Closer co-operation with Washington and Brussels would inoculate the economy against coercion, strengthen national resilience and open up new export markets in the US and Europe — a winning trifecta.
Alan Dupont is chief executive officer of the Cognoscenti Group a political and strategic risk consultancy and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.