Afghanistan: Playing Both Sides of the U.S.-Chinese Rivalry

By Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Isaac Kardon

Foreign Affairs

March 15, 2024

Why Countries Get External Security From Washington—and Internal Security From Beijing

On a visit to Budapest in late February, China’s minister of public security, Wang Xiaohong, secured a face-to-face meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to establish a new bilateral security arrangement. China and Hungary agreed to cooperate on law enforcement, policing, and counterterrorism, putting security ties at the center of their relationship.

In many ways, it was a puzzling agreement, since Hungary is already a member of a security alliance—NATO—that protects it from armed attack. But Budapest’s pursuit of security relationships with both Beijing and Washington is a notable example of a global trend. Overlapping security relationships are increasingly common. Countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam are courting Chinese and U.S. security cooperation at the same time.

This phenomenon has a simple explanation: Beijing and Washington are offering different products, reflecting their distinctive concepts of security and the types of support each is best suited to provide. The United States shores up external security, protecting its partners militarily against regional threats. China, meanwhile, provides internal security, giving governments the tools to combat social disorder and political opposition.

Even though their engagement takes different forms, the United States and China are both using security relationships to compete for influence, intensifying the U.S.-Chinese rivalry and increasing the risk of miscalculation. Through the types of support they provide to third countries, Washington and Beijing also impart their own ideas about the appropriate role of security in a society. U.S. policymakers must learn to manage this new competition—and use U.S. security partnerships to advance forms of security that do not impinge on democracy or human rights.


It may seem risky for a country to pursue security cooperation with two great powers that are directly competing with each other. If the country already receives reliable security assistance from one great power, exploring a partnership with the other could throw the existing relationship into jeopardy. Yet many countries are appealing to both the United States and China, rather than choosing just one. And so far, Washington and Beijing are allowing it.

Countries have been able to pursue these dual relationships because they are often not in direct competition. The United States’ primary offering is regional security: it defends allies and partners against threatening neighbors, provides extended nuclear deterrence, and combats transnational terrorist groups, leaning heavily on U.S. advantages in high-end military capabilities. Washington has built up a network of allies with mutual defense treaties and other bilateral security partnerships to address challenges to peace and stability, including threats posed by China and North Korea in East Asia, Iran in the Middle East, and Russia in Europe.

The Department of Defense usually leads U.S. international security efforts. It establishes partnerships with other countries’ defense ministries and armed forces, and uses these relationships to project U.S. military power in priority regions. Where law enforcement and intelligence cooperation factor into U.S. security partnerships, the focus is still on external threats, such as transnational terrorist organizations or drug cartels.

Many countries are appealing to both the United States and China, rather than choosing just one.

China, meanwhile, offers foreign governments domestic and regime security. Through cooperation on law enforcement and public security measures such as digital surveillance, police training, and riot management, Beijing helps its partners maintain control at home. China is not trying to replicate the United States’ network of military alliances; in the Middle East, for instance, Beijing has largely deferred to Washington’s position as a regional security leader. In its recent outreach to Hungary, too, China is not positioning itself as a substitute for U.S. military power in Europe. Instead, China’s domestic security agencies have established their own channels of bilateral cooperation focused on internal stability and political control.

There is some overlap in U.S. and Chinese security cooperation with foreign partners. Beijing does engage in traditional military outreach, selling arms to and participating in joint military exercises and training with countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar, and Russia. Like the United States, China conducts regular naval diplomacy to signal its military presence and capabilities. Some countries, including Pakistan and Thailand, have received substantial military aid from both Beijing and Washington. China and the United States also both devote considerable attention to helping partner militaries develop their capacity for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations.

But this overlap is a small piece of a larger picture in which the United States and China operate under starkly different security paradigms. Washington and Beijing have both articulated expansive national security objectives driven in part by their perception of the other as a threat, but each country puts forward its own ideas about what security is and how to achieve it.

The United States is focused on regional security, developing and deploying military power to help its partners balance against, deter, and combat external threats such as Russian aggression in Ukraine and Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear and conventional military capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy emphasizes the importance of “America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships” and the role of its armed forces in “backstopping diplomacy, confronting aggression, deterring conflict, projecting strength, and protecting the American people and their economic interests.” It is less focused on domestic security issues, such as threats to public safety from violent crime, and—unlike U.S. strategy during the Cold War—does not promote aid to repressive internal security forces that might keep “friendly” dictators in power.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s concept of national security, however, is based on “political security”—the protection of China’s socialist system, Chinese Communist Party leadership, and Xi himself. For Xi, security requires what he has called a “comprehensive” approach that gives priority to internal threats and the security of the regime. The international dimension, which dominates U.S. national security thinking, in China serves only as “a support” for what is primarily a domestic project, according to Xi’s report to the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Party Congress in 2022. Both at home and abroad, China relies much more heavily than the United States does on its law enforcement, paramilitary, and secret police agencies to carry out security policy. And Beijing is increasingly ready and willing to work with partners who voice similar regime security demands.


Astute middle and small powers can take advantage of this uneven U.S.-Chinese security competition. As long as both great powers provide security goods without demanding an exclusive arrangement, third countries can reap the benefits.

Hungary is an illustrative case. Its China policy has long diverged from those of its European partners; Hungary was the first EU participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By obstructing European aid to Ukraine and delaying Sweden’s NATO accession in tacit support of Russian objectives, Hungary has shown it is willing to play major powers off one another in order to extract concessions.

So far, Budapest has managed to maintain this balance. As a NATO ally, Hungary enjoys the external security provided by the United States. But as Orban’s government works to undermine Hungary’s democratic institutions, Budapest also benefits from a domestic security partnership with Beijing that will soon see Chinese police patrols on Hungarian streets.

It is telling that Beijing sent its domestic police chief to Budapest, not the defense or foreign minister, to discuss security cooperation. In a meeting with Wang, the Chinese public security minister, Hungary’s interior minister, Sandor Pinter, echoed Chinese official rhetoric by emphasizing “the guarantee of security and stability” as a prerequisite for good relations. At least in part, this reflects Orban’s concern that Hungary’s engagement with the United States empowers a liberal opposition that could challenge his regime. Although Budapest’s partnerships with Beijing and Washington overlap on certain issues, such as counterterrorism, Hungary generally has different reasons for maintaining each relationship and different expectations of what each security patron will provide.

Orban may be more brazen than most world leaders in flaunting Hungary’s dual security ties, but his is hardly the only country that is drawing attention and resources from both China and the United States. Vietnam is, too. Last September, while U.S. President Joe Biden was in Hanoi, the United States and Vietnam announced that they would upgrade their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that includes close collaboration between U.S. and Vietnamese defense institutions.

Hanoi and Washington have been steadily stepping up their security cooperation over the past decade in direct response to the security threat that China poses in Vietnam’s neighborhood. Driven by Vietnam’s disputes with China over territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, U.S.-Vietnamese defense cooperation has developed most robustly in the maritime domain. Vietnam has become a frequent port of call in recent years for U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the region.

Three months after Biden’s visit to Hanoi, it was Xi’s turn. In December, Xi made his way to the Vietnamese capital to reinforce Beijing’s own comprehensive strategic partnership with Hanoi. This time, however, the conversation focused on bolstering communist rule in both countries. Xi declared that, together, Beijing and Hanoi would “spare no effort to prevent, defuse, and contain all kinds of political and security risks,” referring not only to national security threats but also to threats to the two countries’ Communist Parties and leadership.

To address these risks, Beijing pledged to assist Hanoi with practical internal security measures, including intelligence sharing by China’s Ministry of State Security and enhanced police cooperation. The two countries agreed to joint efforts to prevent domestic instability, separatism, and “color revolution”—a term that evokes China and Vietnam’s mutual fear of foreign interference and opposition activity that could topple the ruling party and bring about democratization. In a way, Vietnam’s two security partnerships are set up to balance each other: Hanoi seeks U.S. assistance to counter an external security threat from China, and it seeks Chinese assistance to counter a threat to regime security it attributes, at least in part, to U.S. efforts to promote democracy.

Other countries also see upsides in receiving security assistance from two competing powers. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has courted Chinese support for its internal security organs, sometimes at the expense of U.S. military assistance. Djibouti has agreed to host bases for both the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Singapore has positioned itself as a security partner and valued intermediary for Washington and Beijing. Papua New Guinea recently signed security agreements with the United States and Australia but is nonetheless considering additional assistance from Beijing. The types of support each country gets from China and the United States vary, allowing them to pick and choose among great-power security offerings and settle on those that best suit their perceptions of the threats they face.


The conventional wisdom is that countries do not want to choose between the United States and China because the United States provides security, China provides economic prosperity, and no country wants to give up one for the other. But there is no such clear tradeoff today. In the past several years, China has boosted its outreach to prospective security partners, and many foreign governments have accepted or are actively considering Beijing’s overtures, especially on matters of internal security. If these countries already have security relationships with the United States, they are usually not throwing out those commitments as they consolidate ties with China. Rather, their security relationships with Beijing and Washington are evolving in tandem as they address different concerns.

During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow provided both internal and external security assistance to their client states, and few if any countries maintained security relationships with both superpowers. In the Cold War’s later years, the United States cut back its (often unsuccessful) efforts to shore up regimes that were, in many cases, repressive dictatorships. Although Washington has not entirely withdrawn from providing internal security assistance in the decades since, it nonetheless left a gap that a rising China has gradually moved to fill.

Beijing portrays Washington’s current externally focused approach as inadequate for addressing the domestic and nontraditional security challenges that many countries face today. It offers alternative solutions under the banner of its Global Security Initiative as a way to make up for the shortfall.

In countries troubled by weak governance, Chinese security assistance may solve legitimate problems—improvements to public order and enforcement of the rule of law often benefit citizens as well as rulers. But that same aid can also enable repression and entrench nondemocratic rule. China’s police training programs, for example, might teach local law enforcement useful tactics, but they also disseminate an expansive view of political policing that can normalize and encourage repression. Similarly, a Chinese “safe city” project might contribute to urban crime control and public safety but can also provide tools to track dissidents and subdue political opposition.

As Washington and Beijing increasingly work with the same partners, their interests may clash.

Authoritarian leaders, in particular, tend to fear that U.S. regional security assistance comes with unwelcome side effects. In their view, a partnership with the United States can be a conduit for promoting human rights and political liberties, which could make their rule less secure. Leaders in countries such as Vietnam try to offset that threat by turning to China for assistance with domestic security and political control. For its part, Beijing empathizes with Hanoi’s regime security concerns and uses this opening to advance bilateral cooperation. Indirectly, U.S. defense cooperation with autocratic countries may encourage those countries to pursue deeper internal security cooperation with China and open new avenues for Chinese influence.

U.S. and Chinese security cooperation initiatives can interact in other ways that intensify rivalry between the two countries. Strategists who argue that economic interdependence between the United States and China will make their rivalry less conflictual than the Cold War are overlooking the fundamental difference between today’s overlapping security relationships and the security blocs of the twentieth century. As Washington and Beijing increasingly provide security goods to the same partners, their interests may clash at the local level.

This overlapping presence can raise the risk of miscalculation. U.S. defense officials may be confident in their relationship with interlocutors in Hanoi, for instance, because Vietnamese defense officials may genuinely prioritize a regional security strategy to counter China’s territorial encroachment in the South China Sea. But other parts of the government in Hanoi—such as the prime minister, whose background is in domestic intelligence and security—are working closely with Beijing to ensure the survival of Vietnam’s communist regime. Washington could, as a result, overestimate its leverage: when push comes to shove, Vietnamese leaders may not choose the partner that helps them protect remote islands over the one that helps them avoid being overthrown or killed by domestic opposition.

This uneven, uncertain, and potentially volatile mix of competition and complementarity in U.S. and Chinese security partnerships presents a challenge for American policymakers. Where countries are using Chinese national security concepts, tactics, and technologies to suppress human rights and tighten authoritarian control, Washington cannot and should not compete to advance the same goals.

Where Beijing is helping countries tackle legitimate security problems—such as high levels of violent crime—Washington should develop and offer alternative solutions that address these problems without enabling democratic erosion or increasing opportunities for repression. If these countries choose to continue receiving internal security assistance from China, as some probably will, the United States and its partners should work with them to establish safeguards, such as oversight bodies, to protect democracy and human rights.

First, however, the United States should do a country-by-country review to identify the countries that fall into each category. Each country will have its own set of security requirements, and each will require an individualized solution. Washington and its partners need a better understanding of how China’s security provisions meet individual countries’ demands before they can offer appropriate alternatives.

Ultimately, the United States must decide where and how to compete—and craft its partnerships in ways that both stabilize international security and protect democracy and human rights. Washington will need to get much more comfortable navigating these complex and overlapping security relationships, because this form of global competition is here to stay.

SHEENA CHESTNUT GREITENS is a Visiting Associate Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s China Landpower Studies Center, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Nonresident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

ISAAC KARDON is a Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


Afghanistan: Playing Both Sides of the U.S.-Chinese Rivalry