In U.S.-China relations, ideology matters

In U.S.-China relations, ideology matters

Is there an ideological basis for the emerging rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China? This question is at the heart of an article that I recently published in The National Interest and which I address at greater length in my forthcoming book.

It is sometimes said that because China is no longer a "Communist country" ideology is no longer a factor in U.S.-China relations. Like most truisms about China ("economic growth will lead inevitably to democracy;" "treat China like an enemy and it will become one") this one is, at best, only partly true. China’s present leaders may not longer be Marxists, but they are most certainly Leninists; they believe that the one party authoritarian regime they lead should continue in power and they are determined to crush any opposition or dissent. Preserving CCP rule is the ultimate aim of all elements of Chinese policy, foreign as well as domestic.

As seen from Beijing, the United States appears as a crusading liberal democratic hegemon, intent on undermining the authority of regimes of which it disapproves and ultimately of remaking the entire world in its own image. This fear colors the Chinese government’s perception of every aspect of U.S. policy and shapes its assessment of America’s activities across Asia, which it believes are aimed at encircling it with pro-U.S. democracies.

The American people, meanwhile, are inclined to view with skepticism and distaste a regime that they regard as oppressive, illiberal, and potentially aggressive. While it is usually dressed in diplomatic language, the long-term aim of U.S. policy towards China is, in fact, to encourage "regime change," albeit gradually and by peaceful means.

Differences in ideology thus tend to heighten the mistrust and competitive impulses that are rooted in the dynamics of geopolitics. Since Athens and Sparta, dealings between dominant powers and fast-rising potential challengers have always been fraught with tension and have often resulted in conflict. Relations between the United States and China were never going to be smooth but, for as long as it persists, the ideological gap that now separates them is going to make it much harder to achieve a stable modus vivendi.

Now for the good news: if China does liberalize there is good reason to hope that relations between the two Pacific powers will improve, perhaps markedly. Hardcore "realists" doubt this, arguing that China’s interests and policies will remain essentially the same, regardless of the character of its domestic regime. But this is a dubious assertion. A strong, democratic China would certainly seek a leading role in its region. But it would also be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of democratic neighbors, more confident of its own legitimacy, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others. For its part, while it will resist the efforts of an authoritarian regime to displace it from the region, the United States would probably be willing eventually to relinquish its position in Asia to a democratic China.