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Geopolitical strategic competition is a team sport

AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
FILE – President Joe Biden drives a Cadillac Lyriq through the showroom during a tour at the Detroit Auto Show, Sept. 14, 2022, in Detroit. Biden, a self-described “car guy,” often promises to lead by example by moving swiftly to convert the sprawling federal fleet to zero-emission electric vehicles. But efforts to help meet his ambitious climate goals by eliminating gas-powered vehicles from the federal fleet have lagged.

America’s competition with authoritarian powers has intensified in recent weeks. China’s Xi Jinping was granted an unprecedented third term as he warned of “dangerous storms ahead.” President Joe Biden issued sweeping restrictions that have been described as hobbling China’s chip industry. If America is to prevail in this competition, it must recognize that it can only do so aligned with allies, that geopolitical competition requires a renewed focus on strengthening alliances and that any industrial policies enacted should support rather than detract from alliance building.

Never before in our lifetimes has the United States been challenged by a rival closer to being its peer. America’s economy is slightly larger or smaller than China’s — depending on how it is measured. China is the largest trading partner to more countries than any other nation. China’s multi-decade sustained effort to invest in research and development has outpaced America’s, and it now rivals the United States in total research and development spending and in capabilities in several emerging technologies. While American remains the dominate military globally, within the Western Pacific China now has parity or in some aspects advantage against the United States militarily. A rivalry between competitors that possess the two largest economies and militaries in the world is a century-shaping event. Only with the benefits of its extensive alliances can America preserve the overmatch in capabilities relative to rivals that has long been the foundation of its security.

At a time when allies are needed more than ever, their ties to America seem to be loosening, as rival powers work hard to bend the global order in a manner more receptive to their authoritarian rule.

Again, consider events in recent weeks. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that includes countries for which America provides security protection, collaborated with Russia to limit oil supplies, despite American advocacy against such a move. The United Nations Human Rights Council rejected holding a debate on the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang province with Indonesia, Qatar, and others voting no and some of the world’s biggest democracies like India, Brazil, and Mexico abstaining. American success in strategic competition will require concerted efforts to cement its ties with key allies.

Provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in support of electric vehicles (EVs) and reducing reliance on China for critical inputs could have more fully embraced our allies. The IRA encompassed three groupings of countries. The first was North America, requiring all or a portion of product to be assembled in Canada, Mexico or the United States to receive applicable rebates. This reflects two realities — that with the long-standing close trading relationships among the three countries, their supply chains are intertwined, particularly in automobile production, and that the United States is more likely to prevail in its competition as North America rather than alone. Yet this exclusive grouping generated friction with important allies. It is unfortunate that after leading other foreign countries in creating jobs in the United States this year (35,000), largely driven by EV investments, that South Korea would be penalized by the IRA.

The second IRA grouping relating to critical minerals required sourcing from countries with which the United States has a free-trade agreement. This embraces more allies like Australia and South Korea, but still excludes important allies like Japan, the United Kingdom and Europe. It is uncertain whether the IRA violates the WTO, but it is certain that the friction it creates with allies is inconsistent with their importance to succeeding in strategic competition.  

The third group used by the IRA is that EVs will be ineligible for credit from 2024 if they use any components (and from 2025 critical minerals) from a “foreign entity of concern” such as China or Russia. To the extent a line must be drawn, this is the line most likely to lead to the strength of alliances pivotal to success in geopolitical competition.

A more inclusive grouping has a far better chance of achieving the goals of President Biden’s just released National Security Strategy that commits to “place a premium on growing the connective tissue — on technology, trade and security — between our democratic allies and partners” and recognizes that “as other economies prosper, demand for U.S. exports of goods and services increases, creating U.S. jobs.”

To succeed, America must embrace the reality that competition is a team sport — our allies matter.

Mark R. Kennedy is a global fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a U.S. Air and Space Forces Civic Leader, president emeritus of the University of Colorado, and former U.S. Representative (2001-07) from Minnesota. He served as a trade advisor under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

Tags authoritarian governments authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism China Chinese economy Chinese influence Chinese military Competition Electric vehicles Emerging technologies Free trade geopolitical competition Great power competition Inflation Reduction Act Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 Joe Biden National Security Strategy North America OPEC OPEC+ Russia South Korea–United States relations Trade Trade policy UN Human Rights Council US allies Xi Jinping Xinjiang internment camps Xinjiang province

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