Created on:
December 18, 2023

Geostrategic Context: Bridging Alliances in the Shadow of Sino-American Competition

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt
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Jeffrey Reynolds, with Andris Bankaa, Lukas Kulesab, Hugo Meijerc, Jeffrey Reynolds, Luis Simone, Morena Skalameraf and Scott Smitson

This article was originally published Nov 21, 2023, in Defence Studies – Geostrategic context: bridging alliances in the shadow of Sino-American competition


The United States, its Allies, and its partners can adapt to the demands of the emerging strategic context by learning lessons from the tumultuous past five years, i.e. the COVID pandemic and related challenges across Western society, deterioration of relations between China and the West, and Russia’s illegal annexation and (re)-invasion of Ukraine. On the one hand, the bridging of alliances should reinforce existing frameworks by widening areas of cooperation across sectors, deepening collaboration in areas like technology transfer and industry, and lengthening the time horizon to plan and execute activities together – with the intent to insulate Western power against the combined strength of Russian and Chinese subversion and aggression. But on the other, policymakers must ruthlessly prioritize the allocation of scarce resources and development of partnerships with like-minded stakeholders.

The U.S. national military strategy calls the next 10 years “a decisive decade.” The competition between the United States and China is global, systemic, and comprehensive. Yet, it differs from the Cold War in several important ways. Where Russia and China once were rivals, today, they are partners – a Eurasian axis consisting of Russia and China and lesser partners like North Korea and Iran (Brands 2022). Where the Cold War bifurcated the world into two ideological camps (and the “Third World” of non-aligned states), a larger number of nations choose to remain close to both the West and China.

Russia and China, and the challenge of a Eurasian Axis

The challenges China and Russia pose to the United States and its allies, when or if they act in concert, are hard to overestimate. For the first time in its history, the West must contend with two existential nuclear adversaries concurrently – with those adversaries potentially acting in tandem.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most obvious threat to peace and stability in Europe, but it is not the only one. Frozen conflicts from Georgia to Transnistria, and persistent meddling in politics throughout the EU and UK, have a corrosive effect across European societies. It remains a natural resource powerhouse, at least partially resistant to the effects of Western sanctions, and well-positioned to furnish China and other willing nations with commodities like gas and uranium. By continuing a disastrous war in Ukraine, Russia inadvertently helps to drain supply lines and war stocks from the United States and its allies, thereby limiting America’s options elsewhere, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, for the next several years.

China presents a different threat pattern to the West than Russia; it defies the conventional explanation that upon which traditional military intelligence and defense analysis are based. True, its military development indicates a blue water navy with global power projection capability and a large army. And it is developing critical capabilities like Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), stand-off missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, GPS-independent navigation, systems for information dominance, and long-range strike from multiple domains to push the United States beyond its so-called Second Island Chain and secure the Himalayas along its western border.

But China’s impressive development of its military over the past 20 years is a subset of a broader effort to maximize leverage over the West. The United Front Work Department strategy enables China to press the West at points of perceived vulnerability. Western policymakers are only beginning to understand Beijing’s creative use of economic power and “adversarial capital,” but it amounts to investments by Chinese firms in Western businesses with the intent to weaken the industrial base and steal technology and processes. Confucius Institutes invest millions of dollars on Western campuses to “teach political lessons that unduly favor China” (Edwards 2023) amongst two generations of young students. China uses elite capture throughout the West to soften policy stances that may be unfavorable to Beijing. One example is the level of corruption at all levels of government in Canada, which is only now becoming public (Dorman 2023).

Building a resilient alliance network to insulate the West against a Eurasian Axis

America and its allies have the means to counter a Eurasian axis but together must exercise more complementary actions vis-à-vis Russia and China. The strongest is the network of relationships built upon decades of cooperation and relatively free transfer of goods, services, people, and ideas throughout the rules-based order. A Chinese diplomat once lamented to an American that the US “has all the good allies.” The sentiment is correct; the challenge is to reinvigorate and adapt networks between Europe and Asia using practical tools that preserve the existing strengths of the security architectures of both regions while simultaneously viewing regional security through a broader, global lens. The US, its allies, and partners could make five advancements and adaptations listed below. While none are revolutionary, these ideas can, together, facilitate a needed shift in Western thinking vis-à-vis China and Russia.

Align time horizons between short- and long-terms

American planners could be forgiven for not realizing that few countries can afford to consider multiple time horizons vis-à-vis China and Russia; smaller countries must be more ruthless than the US in prioritizing scarce resources. With Russia enmeshed in a quagmire in Ukraine, planners must contend with a volatile Russia that over-relies on its nuclear capability to backstop horrific military losses over the short term. Longer-term Russia is likely to threaten Europe with and a “replenished and re-stocked” conventional force for Russia within the next decade, capable of projecting limited force and supporting mercenary groups, like Wagner or Redut.

Two-time horizons also dominate discussions about China. The first is the Davidson Window, the short period from now until 2027 when China will reach the maximum of its strength vis-à-vis the West before weakening due to various factors (Hendrix 2021). The second is the long-term, often described as the “100-Year Marathon” – effectively now through 2050 (Pillsbury 2023). According to David Kilcullen, the two-time periods place different demands on planners, effectively focussing on longer-term capability acquisition, e.g. nuclear submarines for Australia in 2040 versus short-term fixes, Abrams tanks, and F-16 fighter jets for Ukraine today. While the United States and some larger allies have the capacity to accommodate short and long-term priorities regarding defense planning, most do not, and must therefore focus on a single timeframe.

Strengthen existing mechanisms by identifying (and remedying) incompatibilities

The fundamental challenge to bridging alliances between Europe and Asia is compatibility: where Europe’s security infrastructures are multilateral and largely unified around NATO as the key structure for the North Atlantic community, Asia’s alliance structure consists of bilateral security arrangements between the US and individual nations through centralized and siloed structures. The US was capable of adapting policy for both regions throughout the Cold War, but the emergence of China and Russia as a mutual challenge for Asia and Europe forces policymakers in Washington to get creative about how to bridge the divide between like-minded security partners in Europe and Asia. Some of this can be achieved by bolstering existing tools, like NATO-led initiatives extended to Asia and more seat allocation in NATO training programs for Asian partners. These are minor adjustments that require modest budget increases and a few additional staff officers in NATO billets. Progress is underway here; Japan and NATO announced a liaison office in Tokyo to open in 2024, which was first proposed over a decade earlier (Reynolds 2012).

A “Super-NATO” organization as a hedge against a Eurasian axis is unlikely. The US and its network of allies and partners must be prudent, leveraging the unique features of the West, its geography and history, and a layered approach to deterrence and defense that spans the military, economy, and politics. Washington could consider a polycentric Indo-Pacific alliance and security architecture as a mesh of all instruments of national power employed to achieve a synchronized effect that insulates the West against Russia and China. Daunting as this may sound, several models in Europe and Asia demonstrate what is possible, e.g. the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) consisting of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden; and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) that boasts 15 nations.

Over the past decade, there has been a shift in how traditional US Allies view the security environment of the Indo-Pacific. It has been most pronounced in two separate yet mutually reinforcing security communities: select NATO allies increasingly establishing presence and power projection and declaring themselves as nations of consequence in the Indo-Pacific, and non-NATO US treaty allies of the region, e.g. Australia and Japan.2 This increase in attention, budgeting, and policy prioritization comes at a time in which both the EU and NATO acknowledge the systemic challenge posed by China and its closer relationship with Russia, as well as similar shifts in strategy Australia and New Zealand.

Other US allies, like Canada and South Korea, are natural elements of any coherent hedge against Russia and China. America could help allies and partners by opening planning billets to foreign liaison officers to both the Services and the Joint Staff, sending US officers to allied planning staffs wherever possible, outlining the risks and opportunities associated with both short and long-term horizons, and facilitating deeper cooperation by helping prioritize capability development across the DOTMLPFI spectrum.3Doing so would also enable a continuous stream of Allied staff officers to be exposed to strategic considerations in ways otherwise unavailable to them, and equally valuable experience for US officers. Other areas of deeper coordination can help reinforce existing networks, in like intelligence sharing, early warning, and exercises. The allies and partners could expand air and missile defense cooperation, basing and warehousing arrangements, technology cooperation, and exercises and training in the long term.

Defend against wedging and hedging

As far back as 2008, Wess Mitchell noted that “(t)he European Union is not a normal great power that simply needs to wrap up a few residual referenda, nor is it or an introverted but largely independent giant Switzerland. Rather, the European Union is likely in coming years to be a theoretically powerful but crisis-prone second-rate power caught in an unending geopolitical tug-of-war between other poles in the international system” (Mitchell 2008). His observation proved prescient (minus the notion of Europe being a “second-rate power”); the foreign policies of many European allies may be shaped by membership in both NATO and EU, but they also suffer from meddling by adversarial powers like Russia and China.

In a conference paper, Simon and Meijer (2023) note that both China and the United States (and Russia) use “wedge strategies” to bring different countries and regions onto their “side” or deny the other one from doing so. The United States continues to induce European allies and partners to adopt tougher stances on China across a range of issues: 5 G digital infrastructures, technology transfer, global supply chains, investment decisions, and military deployments to the Indo-Pacific region. In turn, China pushes economic incentives and threats to prevent or weaken transatlantic alignment. Russia uses natural resources to exert influence over European nations with insatiable energy appetites.

Europe’s autonomy amidst Sino-American competition hinges on European actors binding Europe together to repel attempts to wedge. But the capacity to bind Europe together varies from issue to issue and is shaped heavily by institutional centralization within the EU and geographic location. Washington and Brussels need to engage across multiple formats and institutions, not just the EU and NATO. This includes developing new mechanisms, e.g. trade agreements and regional cooperation, to identify and minimize differences in threat perception and policy preference between the US and different European stakeholders, complement – or even align – transatlantic approaches to the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Empower “Super-Atlanticist allies”

While direct engagement between the US and EU is routine and substantive, the actions of Russia and China over the past several years facilitated the rise of a new phenomenon in European politics – the Super Atlanticist. While any smaller EU member state can become such a state, Banka (2023) argues that fears of abandonment incentivize Lithuania to show its “good ally” bona fides through signs of support for American positions and policies throughout the world, even if that means that Vilnius at times adopts positions that conflict with the EU and some of its member states – France and Germany, in particular. Traditionally, small states are expected to “sit quietly in the shadow of great powers” and a great deal of the scholarly literature has therefore treated them as “objects, not as subjects of international relations” (Neumann and Gstöhl 2006). Lithuania defied this expectation and serves as a template for other EU states to follow.

Lithuania is not the only state to pursue this strategy; Spain and Georgia contributed to the Iraq War, and Ukraine and Ireland sent troops to Afghanistan. But over the past few years, Vilnius has gone further than others by inserting itself into great power competition by becoming one of Europe’s loudest voices opposing China. Why would the Lithuanian government challenge a power far greater in size? Multiple causative factors are at play, but its overall stance towards the Chinese Communist Party must be viewed through the lens of its alliance ties with the US. While confronting China may be a high-risk approach, it is equally, in the eyes of Lithuanian political elites, a high-reward strategy that makes the country a more attractive ally to America. By casting itself as a European frontrunner standing up to China, the Lithuanian government aims to cement its status as a trustworthy US ally over the long term.

Doing so is controversial domestically. A 2022 poll commissioned by Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry found that a mere 13% of the Lithuanian public supported the government’s hardline stance toward Beijing (LTT 2022). Even Lithuania’s President questioned whether the country had overplayed its hand and escalated the situation too far (Milne  2022). Yet, despite domestic division and constant attacks by the Chinese Communist Party, the Lithuanian ruling coalition remains unfazed. When in August 2022, the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi embarked on a controversial visit to Taiwan, the only EU country to endorse the trip was Lithuania (Erlanger 2022).

While one should not overstate the impact Vilnius has on EU-China relations, Lithuania influenced the EU’s policy agenda toward a US-friendly direction. Brands (2021) argues that while “great-power competitions have the feel of one-on-one duels, it is the choices of lesser states that can shape the fates of superpowers” (Brands 2021). Lithuania attempted to do its fair share of shaping great power competition. Of course, Vilnius hopes to get something in return for its tough line against China, i.e. a robust US military footprint in the Baltic region. After Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the US has elevated its presence from “episodic deployments” to a “persistent rotational presence” across the Baltics (LSM 2023). While a key strategic objective for Lithuanian lawmakers is a permanent US military base in the country, the latest US deployment constitutes an important measure of assurance for Lithuania.

Encourage anchor states

The form and function of a Eurasian axis changes the strategic landscape in Europe and Asia; some states play outsized roles inconceivable a couple of years ago. Poland is a strong example of this phenomenon. Kulesa (2023) states that Poland views the US as the indispensable nation providing security and stability in Europe. But Washington’s increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific is a key challenge for Polish policymakers; it risks the US turning its attention – and military – away from Europe, thus exposing the continent to Russian aggression.

In response, Warsaw adopted a combination of measures: efforts within NATO, bilateral contributions to US policies, and a push to deepen economic and industrial links with US companies. This approach includes measures to further cohere NATO, deter Russia, manage expectations regarding European strategic autonomy, and adjust the European Union’s foreign policy to accommodate the increase in America’s interest in the Indo-Pacific region. Poland sees China as a principal opponent but maintains a dialogue and economic ties with Beijing. At the same time, Warsaw views Russia as an immediate and ongoing threat.

While Warsaw recognizes the asymmetric nature of its relationship with Washington, it has adopted an “anchor state” philosophy in its strategic calculus with a four-pronged strategy. First, Warsaw engages in a persistent effort to have Washington establish a permanent US military presence in Poland. Second, it identifies the most salient American foreign policy objectives and provides substantive support to them, e.g. the 2003 Iraq invasion, counter ISIS-coalition, missile defense, and 5 G network security. Third, Poland continues to deepen its economic and industrial links with the US industry, e.g. recent purchases of the F-35 combat fighter jet, Patriot missile battery, and Abrams Main Battle Tanks. Fourth, the Poles push for broader economic engagement with the US beyond defense and into areas like research and development, digital economy, liquefied natural gas terminals, and nuclear power plants.


The US and its allies contend with a Eurasian axis of China and Russia. Insulating the West from the combined might of Moscow and Beijing requires revitalizing existing institutions and internal reforms. It demands innovative diplomacy that places allies and partners at the forefront of policy planning across sectors, e.g. military, diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. Yet, the challenges and opportunities of this era behoove America’s allies and partners to demonstrate value in new ways that resonate in Washington, Brussels, and beyond. This includes:

Increasing opportunities for US allies and partners to participate in planning efforts, particularly in policy planning cells within the Departments of Defense and State (and placing US planners in similar positions within allied ministries where possible).

Bolstering technical cooperation and transfer with trusted allies in Europe and Asia, using the recent experience with AUKUS and Poland as guides for multinational and bilateral cooperation, respectively.

Rewarding “Super-Atlanticist” allies through industrial engagement and – if prudent – military basing considerations.

Deepening industrial cooperation beyond traditional defense sectors to ensure mutually beneficial economic integration.

Ensuring allies and partners remain resistant to wedging and hedging efforts by China and Russia globally.


  1.   Investments from rival nations in US companies could block the DoD from working with them for national security reasons.
  2.   France, and the United Kingdom, though Germany and the Netherlands have been increasing their maritime military presence.
  3.   Doctrine, Organisation, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities, and Interoperability.


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