Through its efforts to counter the geostrategic reach of China and Russia, the Biden administration aims to defend democracy globally. U.S. President Joe Biden, in his national security strategy, described autocratic powers that are “working overtime to undermine democracy and export a model of governance marked by repression at home and coercion abroad.” Yet contending with China and Russia sometimes drives the United States to cultivate or tighten relations with governments that are themselves democratically challenged, whether the U.S. aim is to enlist their military, economic, or diplomatic help against China and/or Russia or at least try to dissuade them from joining their camp.
Such tensions within an overarching geostrategy that is cast in terms of defending democracy have occurred before. They were abundant during the Cold War, when defending the “free world” often involved cozy U.S. ties with anticommunist “friendly tyrants,” from Mobutu in Zaire to Suharto in Indonesia. They surged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, when the resulting war on terrorism, although framed in terms of a global “freedom agenda,” led Washington to bolster cooperation with various undemocratic regimes in South Asia (like Pakistan), Central Asia (like Uzbekistan), and elsewhere. But while the fact that such tensions exist in the current U.S. foreign policy framework is not a surprise, the growing number and diversity of them is only starting to be fully understood.
Of course, Washington has other interests beyond its competition with China and Russia that drive it to seek or maintain friendships with autocratic governments. The strong U.S. commitment to ensure Israel’s security and push back against Iran’s regional influence, for example, is a critical motivating factor behind the close U.S. ties with multiple Arab autocracies. Fighting Islamist extremists in Africa involves partnerships with some democratically-troubled governments. An interest in cooperation on migration issues has encouraged the Biden administration to go easy on democratic backsliding in Mexico and El Salvador.
But the China/Russia factor has become an increasingly widespread and consequential force behind many friendly U.S. relations with or friend-seeking approaches toward undemocratic governments.
Taking stock of the burgeoning security-democracy tradeoffs nested within the larger geostrategic endeavor of countering Chinese and Russian authoritarianism may help chart a path to mitigating the tradeoffs more effectively, or at least sharpen awareness of their overall cost in terms of the United States’ global image and pro-democratic aspirations.
Asia is ground zero of the geostrategic rivalry between the United States and China. Four major country cases of tensions between geostrategy and democracy stand out: India, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines.
The Washington establishment has long seen India as a major prize in its quest to line up Asian allies to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Welcoming India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a resplendent White House dinner last July was the capstone of Biden’s sustained effort to realize this goal. Crucial to this policy line has been not making a fuss about Modi’s intensifying illiberalism. Biden administration officials have sometimes raised concerns with Indian officials about some elements of India’s backward slide on democracy, but overall, they do not let India’s democratic problems stand in the way of the larger geostrategic embrace.
In somewhat parallel albeit more limited fashion, building ties with Vietnam is seen in Washington as an important part of the strategy countering China. When Biden traveled to Hanoi in September 2023 and signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with the Vietnamese government, the White House celebrated the step as a “momentous” diplomatic achievement. This, too, was a capstone of persistent diplomacy, and one that also involved keeping democracy and human rights concerns on the backburner.
In the Philippines, the departure of Rodrigo Duterte and the arrival to the presidency in 2022 of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has brought a turnaround in the country’s foreign policy orientation, from chilliness toward Washington and a lean toward China to a renewed embrace of close security ties with Washington. Although Marcos is doing little better than Duterte in terms of respecting human rights, the Biden administration has embraced him enthusiastically, happy with his rebalancing between China and the United States.
Thailand is a different though still relevant case. The United States has long had a strong security partnership with Thailand, rooted in a broad shared interest in regional Southeast Asian security. Thailand has been a treaty ally since 1954 and a major non-NATO ally since 2003. The partnership was challenged but not sundered by the military coups in Thailand in 2006 and 2014 — in both cases, Washington suspended security assistance after the coup, but then resumed it over time. In the last several years, the partnership has drifted somewhat. The ruling Thai elites have become somewhat friendlier to China, yet the U.S. remains attached to the relationship as a still valuable element of its Indo-Pacific strategy.
The U.S. response to China’s growing influence in Asia of course extends beyond the security domain to the economic plane as well. Here, too, pursuing more cooperative relations with democratically challenged governments is part of the geostrategic push. In 2022, for example, the Biden administration announced the establishment of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a broad-gauged regional economic agreement covering supply chains, clean energy, the digital economy, and other economic areas. As one analyst notes, the main purpose of the IPEF is “to counter China’s increasing influence amongst South and Southeast Asia countries.” More than half of the partner countries in the IPEF are either established autocracies (Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) or democratically troubled countries (India, Fiji, Malaysia, and the Philippines).
Sub-Saharan Africa presents a diverse and burgeoning landscape of U.S. competition with both China and Russia, competition that animates U.S. relations with a number of nondemocratic countries in the region. In some cases, usually in smaller countries where the overall set of U.S. interests is quite narrow, the competition dimension is a significant factor shaping U.S. policy. In others — usually larger countries where the U.S. has multiple interests in play — the competition factor is more of a background element.
As Russia has in the past five years established a growing number of security relationships with African governments, often punctuated by the arrival to the country of the Wagner Group, Washington has become more preoccupied with trying to head off or limit such relationships. Russia’s influence has advanced primarily in the Sahel and is inter-mixed with the recent spate of coups there, as some of the new post-coup military leaders have embraced or at least shown openness toward closer ties with Russia. This dynamic has complicated U.S. responses to the coups that have occurred, in some cases rendering Washington hesitant to cut off or significantly reduce security assistance and other ties with such leaders, despite a nominal anti-coup policy stance overall.
After the 2021 coup in Guinea for example, the United States terminated aid to the country’s military, but it has continued providing sizable amounts of economic aid. Washington seems to be seeking to avoid shutting out a country that enjoys an active economic relationship with Russia and that the Russian foreign minister has signaled might soon receive security assistance from Moscow. After two coups in Burkina Faso in 2022, the United States stopped providing military aid to that country. Yet with Moscow having provided equipment to the military and the Wagner Group reportedly eager to go to the country, or already there, the Biden administration is considering restarting at least non-lethal aid to the military. A related case is that of the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group has been active since 2017. Despite the highly repressive character of the government, the Biden administration has approached officials with an offer of security assistance if they would make Wagner leave the country.
China’s dramatically increased presence in Africa over more than a decade (China’s two-way trade with Africa now exceeds U.S. trade with the continent by a factor of four) has impelled successive U.S. administrations to try to compete with China in the region on multiple fronts—diplomatic, economic, and security. The Biden administration’s Africa strategy states that China “sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order . . . and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.” In at least a few cases, the competition has a direct security angle. The prospect of Equatorial Guinea allowing China to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Guinea for example, motivated U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer to visit the country in 2021 and contributes to the tolerant approach the administration takes toward a politically retrograde regime. Djibouti, given its willingness to host a major U.S. naval base (just a short distance away from a Chinese naval base also on the country’s coast), has for many years been given a free pass from Washington on its undemocratic politics.
More often however, the competition is related to economic issues, especially access to critical minerals or other strategic resources, or general diplomatic orientation, such as Ethiopia’s recent decision to accept what was effectively China’s offer to join the BRICS. In major countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Kenya, U.S efforts to maintain cooperative relations with governments plagued by serious human rights violations or democratic shortcomings are influenced by the awareness that China looms as an important partner seeking ever-closer ties with these countries. In these cases, the China factor is not a major driver of the U.S. effort to maintain good relations – the countries are geopolitically significant in their own right — but the specter is unquestionably present.
The United States has long found reasons to maintain friendly, or at least positive, ties with Central Asia’s governments, especially Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, despite their consistently authoritarian character (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which achieved some significant political pluralism at certain times over the past 20 years). During the many years of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, military basing and other support from some Central Asian countries was a major incentive. Energy issues, especially access for U.S. companies to help develop oil and gas fields in the region, has also been a motivating factor vis-à-vis some countries, especially Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The desire to offer these governments an alternative to Moscow has also long informed U.S. thinking about the region as well.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the Biden administration had to rethink its interest in and approach to the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped clarify the sense of a new juncture: dislike of Russia’s action was widespread in official Central Asian circles, especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and solidarity with Ukraine became manifest among some citizens in the region. The Biden administration perceived an opportunity to step up efforts to engage Central Asian governments and underline to them that they have options with respect to their overall diplomatic and security orientation. The Biden team knows that the United States cannot displace Russia, which has deep ties along many fronts with these countries, but it hopes to at least increase multipolarity of outlook among the governments of the region. Biden met with the five Central Asian leaders on the margins of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session in September 2023. It was the first time the C5 + 1 mechanism established in 2015 between the United States and the five Central Asian countries was employed at the leadership level. The heightened competition with Russia has increased the U.S. appetite for greater engagement with a set of longtime authoritarian states.
The Gulf States
The longstanding close ties between Washington and some of its autocratic partners in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are facing new pressures as a result of those countries’ efforts to expand their relations with China and Russia. This reorientation is most apparent in the economic domain. Trade and investment flows between the Gulf states and China have shot up in recent years with China becoming the largest trading partner of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Gulf’s military ties with China and Russia have increased as well. The UAE is continuing to allow China to build a military facility at a port in the UAE, despite serious concerns about the project expressed by the United States, which has thousands of military personnel based in the country and relies on UAE ports to “host more Navy ships than any other port outside the United States.” The UAE has developed ties with Russia’s Wagner Group in Libya and Sudan that extend to gold paid by Sudanese authorities to Wagner being funneled through markets in Dubai to turn it into cash. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have taken a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine War and not curbed economic ties with Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine.
The effect of these countries’ growing hedging between the United States and its main geostrategic rivals on their relations with Washington is complex. On the one hand, it has prompted the Biden administration to take a tough line on specific policy initiatives of Gulf States vis-à-vis China or Russia that it finds especially unhelpful or troublesome. One example was the pointed effort of the Biden team to pressure the UAE to curtail relations between G42 (an Emirati artificial intelligence firm) and Chinese companies out of concern about American technology potentially being siphoned from G42 to those companies. On the other hand, it reduces the U.S. room for diplomatic maneuver with these governments, especially relating to their shortcomings in the domain of rights and democracy. This was vividly underlined by Biden’s decision in mid-2022 to put aside his initial chilly line toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and seek closer U.S.-Saudi ties. A motivating factor behind the decision was a desire to seek Saudi help in resettling world oil markets after the disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, disruptions that were putting pressures on gas prices in the United States.
Of course, multiple U.S. security and economic interests have long inhibited the United States from saying or doing much about political conditions in these countries. However, in this new context of governments in the region forthrightly showing Washington that they have choices in terms of international partnerships on both the economic and security fronts, U.S. policymakers have to work all the harder to maintain their favor.
Managing the Problem
The imperative to counter China’s and Russia’s expanding transnational influence is pushing Washington to be nicer to democratically-challenged governments around the world, and not only in the four regions or sub-regions discussed above. For example, when Poland stepped up strongly to assist Ukraine after the onset of the Russian invasion there, the Biden administration largely shelved earlier expressions of concern about the Polish government’s worryingly illiberal domestic maneuvers.
The tensions play out differently in different places. In some countries, they lead to the U.S. going easy on currently backsliding leaders. In others, the strains stem from ensuring the maintenance of cozy ties with longstanding autocrats. In still others, Washington tries to open new doors with undemocratic governments. But the underlying clash is the same, and the fact that it is making itself felt in so many places highlights that it is not just a small burr on the margins of U.S. democracy support but a serious problem at the core. Moreover, these contradictory pressures are likely to increase both in number and intensity over time, as both China and Russia keep pushing to expand their economic, diplomatic, and strategic reach.
No silver bullet exists for eliminating these policy tensions — they can only be managed. In a previous article, I set out a broad menu of approaches for navigating tensions between security and democracy goals in U.S. foreign policy. Several of them are of particular relevance here. One is for policymakers not to proceed on autopilot when it comes to assuming the value of an existing or potential security relationship with an autocratic country. The churning geopolitical waters of today require a constant reexamination of such relationships and a willingness to question easy assumptions about them. The U.S. drive to tighten ties with Vietnam, for example, risks being based on overly rosy assumptions about the degree of that country’s willingness to line up with the United States against China. Another lesson is for policymakers not to overestimate the damage that may occur to some relationships with autocratic or autocratizing leaders if the United States does call out troublesome democratic slippage or exert other pressures in this vein. The continuous fear of alienating the Egyptian government in response to any serious ratcheting up of U.S. pressure on human rights issues, for example, seems overblown.
Every security-democracy tradeoff needs to be carefully scrutinized with a close eye on the overall picture, not just the specific case. Failing to attend to how the accumulation of these tradeoffs across the many different cases hurts U.S. global credibility encourages policymakers to wave away the significance of any one tradeoff rather than working hard to minimize each one to the greatest extent possible within the confines of the security needs at stake.