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US-China and the “Clubisation” of International Politics

The two superpowers turn to organising issue clubs, opening membership to any country willing to oppose the other on a given issue, thus opting for clubisation instead of globalisation or regionalisation

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Mars & Venus China EU US

Yan Xuetong
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, and then Vice President Joe Biden take questions from students

In a speech on foreign policy at the State Department in February, President Joseph R. Biden noted that he will repair America’s alliances to “confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.” He also committed “to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” This policy reflects neither containment nor engagement, but a clubisation strategy.

Although China and the US are the main players in the emerging bipolar world, they share a common view that their competition differs from that between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. To win this new type of long-term competition, they are both adopting strategies different from those of the US or the Soviets during the Cold War. Their newly developed strategies will define the characteristics of international politics in the coming decade.

Based on America’s huge superiority over China in terms of alliances, the Biden administration will leverage the collective efforts of its allies to compete with China. Biden said, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” Faced with a lack of allies, China has no choice but to improve its strategic partnership with other countries, including America’s allies, to cope with the pressure from the US. Many of America’s allies have had established strategic partnerships with China for years. Admittedly, a strategic partnership does not equate to an alliance, but the dual strategic identity prevents America’s allies from supporting the US unconditionally.

Along with the intensifying competition between the US and China, most of the less powerful states, even Japan and Germany, have adopted a hedging strategy, siding with the US on political or security issues and with China on economic issues. Hedging strategy results in both the US and China being unable to get complete support from their allies or strategic partners. Faced with this situation, the two superpowers turn to organising issue clubs, opening membership to any country willing to oppose the other on a given issue. For instance, China backed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes American allies such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand. The US initiated the Next G alliance, which includes some of China’s strategic partners, such as Germany, France, and South Korea.

The intensification of China-US competition and the Covid-19 pandemic are jointly contributing to the increasing the fears of major powers regarding the vulnerability of economic interdependence, specifically the international technology supply chain. To reduce the danger of foreign countries creating a “technology bottleneck”, especially the US, China has adopted an internal circulation strategy by establishing domestic supply chains. To prevent China from depriving America’s technology superiority, Biden’s Administration has decided to continue Trump’s strategy of technology decoupling against China. Other major powers are also concerned about the over-dependence on either China’s or America’s technology. The fear of the vulnerability of supply chains is likely to encourage major powers, especially China and the US, to organise their own supply chain clubs, which will give clubisation a chance to replace globalisation as the main trend of international politics in the coming decade.

Clubisation is different from both globalisation and regionalisation. Globalisation refers to cooperation open to all states in the world, and regionalisation refers to cooperation between states residing in the same geographical area, such as the EU and ASEAN. Clubisation, on the other hand, refers to the cooperation of states with exclusive membership to issue clubs about shared interests on specific topics, such as ideology, technology, trade, and security, but the members are not necessarily located in the same geographic region. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is a typical case, which is led by Japan and includes Canada, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico, and Peru.

In fact, most of the existing international organisations started as issue clubs, such as the EU, NATO, and many free trade agreements. In the last decade, international political, or economic, clubs have become more active than ever before, such as the QUAD composed of the US, Japan, Australia, and India; the FVEY with the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, New Zealand; and the BRICS countries, with Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In the coming decade, there will be more such clubs in the world. For example, companies from the US, Japan, and the Netherlands are currently trying to establish a club to control the sale of chips to China.

In the emerging bipolar world, China and the US are increasingly competing with a clubisation strategy, developing issue cooperation against the other side, rather than containment, and fighting proxy wars. With the dual identity of being both America’s ally and China’s strategic partner, most weaker states will adopt hedging strategies by joining issue-based clubs according to their shared interests with either China or the US. It will be difficult to establish new international clubs including both China and the US as members.

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