Photographer: Christian Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

First in a five-part series on countries at the center of the U.S.-China rivalry.

Great-power competitions have the feel of one-on-one duels: Athens vs. Sparta, Rome vs. Carthage, Moscow vs. Washington. Yet they are also struggles for the loyalties of those caught between the contenders, which means that the choices of lesser states can determine the fate of superpowers.

During the Napoleonic wars, London eventually triumphed by orchestrating a winning coalition of countries menaced by the French juggernaut. During the Cold War, the support of the “free world” was America’s decisive advantage: The benefits conveyed by alliances with some of the world’s most dynamic countries gave Washington the edge over Moscow and its coalition of impoverished satrapies. Few lessons of the past are more relevant today.

A new global rivalry, between America and China, is remaking supply chains, reshaping the world’s strategic geography, and raising the specter of a devastating great-power war. As during the Cold War, countries from Oceania to Latin America are being pressured to pick sides, insulate themselves from competitive pressures, or otherwise find protection in a fragmenting world.

These countries are strategic prizes as Washington and Beijing maneuver for advantage, but they are also strategic actors in their own right. The choices they make — how they vote in the United Nations; which provider of 5G technology they select; whom they support and whom they resist — may well decide who wins this century’s defining contest.

Both the reigning superpower and the aspiring superpower have tailored their strategies accordingly. For the U.S., the strategic calculus is simple: Washington cannot balance Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific, prevent autocrats from winning the battle of ideas and the struggle to shape technological innovation, or otherwise blunt Beijing’s revisionist challenge without rallying a diverse coalition of states — or, perhaps, multiple overlapping coalitions of states — to the cause.

China, conversely, can control its geopolitical neighborhood, assert dominant influence on the vast Eurasian landmass, and dethrone the U.S. geopolitically only if it isolates America from its friends. President Xi Jinping is also determined to create blocs of countries that are technologically and economically dependent on Beijing, and thus unable to oppose its geopolitical ascent.

This is the first of a series of columns about four pivotal states — key countries on the frontlines of the U.S.-China rivalry. Germany, Djibouti, India and the Philippines are located thousands of miles apart; they occupy very different strategic places in the Sino-American relationship, as well. One could argue that other countries — Russia, Singapore, the U.K., Japan, Australia — are just as important. Yet the four countries chosen here are crucial, in one way or another, to the course of the U.S.-China rivalry. There remains some uncertainty, albeit of varying degrees, about how these four states will align themselves. And their stories illustrate a few common themes about how that rivalry is unfolding.

The first is how multifaceted modern competition is. The U.S.-China struggle involves the balance of internet norms and political ideas as well as the balance of military power and trade. It is unfolding in international organizations as well as the industries of the future. Its key weapons range from strategic corruption to infrastructure investment. The contest for the pivotal states is thus taking many forms and is occurring in many realms of statecraft.

Second, the frontlines of the Sino-American competition are everywhere — there are pivotal states all over the world. Yes, war is most likely to break out along China’s immediate periphery, perhaps in the Taiwan Strait or along the border with India. But Beijing’s ambitions and economic power have carried its influence into nearly every continent. The critical action, on any given day, is as likely to be occurring in Central European boardrooms as on naval vessels in the Western Pacific.

One Belt, One Road

Third, the pivotal states are not simply pawns or proxies pushed about by Washington and Beijing. Some are playing the two sides against each other; others are seeking a third way in an increasingly bipolar world; some are leaning toward one camp or the other. But all are pursuing their own strategies amid a fraught geopolitical environment, and their decisions will shape the Sino-American rivalry just as thoroughly as the choices of smaller powers determined which superpower won the Cold War.

Finally, the U.S. faces a harder road in this contest than many Americans realize. China’s global favorability ratings have taken a swan dive due to its role in the Covid-19 epidemic and the brutish tendencies of the Communist regime. But Beijing wields a combination of economic carrots and coercive sticks more impressive than anything the Soviet Union commanded; it has made inroads not simply with developing countries but with some of America’s key allies.

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” Joe Biden declared at last week’s Munich Security Conference, between rival superpowers that represent rival systems of government. For generations, America has been an unbeatable competitor because it leads a free-world posse that gives it a preponderance of global power. Yet if Washington can’t keep the pivotal states onside in the coming years, it may get a bitter education in what it is like to lose a great-power rivalry.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Hal Brands at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at

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Heart Castañeda

By Heart Castañeda

Birkbeck College, University of London is ranked joint 344th in the world this year and is the only one of these top universities in London that allows students to complete full-length degrees during evening courses, with all the visa and loan privileges of daytime study. Birkbeck is again located in the Bloomsbury area, close to UCL and SOAS and within walking distance of many central London attractions, and it schedules its programs with the aim of allowing students to complete a day’s work before attending class. Many students study part-time, taking advantage of the university’s flexible ethos, and are enrolled on a wide range of programs at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.