The Power Delusion

U.S.-China competition isn’t just about great-power rivalry. It’s about the ideological battle between democracy and authoritarianism, too.

People's Liberation Army soldiers wear protective masks as they stand at attention in front of photo of China's president Xi Jinping at their barracks in Beijing on May 20.
People's Liberation Army soldiers wear protective masks as they stand at attention in front of photo of China's president Xi Jinping at their barracks in Beijing on May 20. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A week after voting concluded, the United States still seems more polarized than at any time in recent history. Yet one area of bipartisan consensus seems to be the need for a more competitive approach to China. Indeed, in their final presidential debate, Donald Trump and Joe Biden sparred over who would be tougher on Beijing.

As the U.S.-China competition heats up, one key question is whether this rivalry is primarily about power or ideology. Some prominent thinkers, like Robert Kaplan and Elbridge Colby, have argued that China poses a threat because of its growing power and that it would be a “catastrophic mistake” to view this competition primarily through an ideological lens.

They contend that the United States would be worried about China’s rise even if it were a democracy and that a focus on the ideological dimension of the challenge complicates Washington’s ability to court nondemocratic allies and paints the rivalry in unnecessary absolutist terms. They conclude that an “insistence on ideological concordance or total victory is a fool’s errand—and quite possibly an invitation to disaster.”

The nature of the threat China poses abroad stems from its autocratic politics at home.

But it would also be an invitation to disaster if Washington were to overlook the important ideological element of this challenge. This is not a competition with a generic China but with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The differences in governing systems between a democratic United States and an autocratic China matter not just for idealistic reasons like defending democracy and human rights (though they are important) but also for practical, hard-power concerns.

That’s because the nature of the threat China poses abroad stems from its autocratic politics at home. Moreover, formulating the best U.S. and allied strategy for addressing the challenge requires a clear-eyed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of autocratic versus democratic systems.

An “either-or” framing makes for good debate, but both power and ideology matter when it comes to U.S.-China competition.

The China challenge is to a large degree about power. China possesses the world’s second-largest economy, and it could surpass the United States to take the top spot in the coming decade. Its military investments have shifted the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, leading former U.S. defense officials to warn that a World War III pitting the United States against China is possible and that the United States might very well lose. These threats are not primarily about ideology. After all, many autocratic countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have poor human rights records, but they are not Washington’s top priority because they are not openly hostile, nor are they great powers.

But what China does with its great power—and, therefore, the threat that it poses—is heavily shaped by its domestic political system. Contrary to the power-centric argument, the foremost economic concern is not that China is growing wealthy but that it is systematically preying on the global economic system.

The CCP engages in unfair trading practices, including intellectual property theft, state subsidies to Chinese firms, and restrictions on foreign firms operating in China. This is not just normal great-power politics but behavior peculiar to an autocratic nation. Economists have shown that open markets and free politics tend to go hand in hand. Further, political scientists have found that democracies are more likely to make and abide by international economic agreements.

The global economic system and the World Trade Organization were set up by a club of democracies that, for the most part, play by the rules and expect other countries to do the same. But the CCP has not done so. Instead, it systematically violates the rules to achieve an unfair advantage. Indeed, it will be difficult for China ever to come into full compliance with global trading standards without fundamentally altering its domestic political and economic model.

The same is true of the military threat. China is currently involved in territorial and maritime disputes with several of its neighbors, including Taiwan, India, Japan, the Philippines, and others. Beijing is employing military coercion in these disputes, and all are possible flash points for armed conflict. It is unlikely that a liberal democratic China would behave in this way. Lacking institutionalized sources of legitimacy, the CCP stokes nationalist sentiment to maintain domestic support, giving assertions of territorial claims against foreign enemies an outsized role in Chinese foreign policy. There is a real risk that China’s disputes with its democratic neighbors will turn violent largely because Beijing is governed by the CCP.

It should go without saying, but it is hard to imagine that a liberal democratic China would engage in the ethnic cleansing of its minority populations, develop 21st-century tools of autocratic control that it exports to other dictators, or employ economic coercion and disinformation in an attempt to undermine democratic practices in the free world.

Unfortunately, as Chinese power has grown, freedom has retreated, with the number of democracies globally declining in each of the past 14 years. China’s sharp-power practices are working, including by silencing free speech critical of China in the United States and other established democracies. This is a problem. The United States defends democracy at home and abroad because it believes that all people have a right to these universal values—but also because it advances its core interests.

To recognize that the growing Chinese military, economic, and governance threat is heavily shaped by Beijing’s autocratic political system is not to engage in abstract moralizing but, rather, is essential for a clear-eyed understanding of the challenge. Realists urge scholars to focus on power, but it would simply be unrealistic to ignore the ideological component of the China threat.

Understanding the ideological dimension of this competition is also necessary for developing a sound strategy. The U.S. national security community often obsesses over an enemy’s strengths and Washington’s weaknesses, but good strategy often begins by leveraging one’s own strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses.

As I argue in a recent book, America’s democratic system provides it with many advantages in this competition, just as China’s autocratic form of government hinders its effectiveness in this competition. To be sure, there are autocratic strengths and democratic weaknesses, as well, and the drawbacks of the U.S. political system are on full display this week.

A chaotic election, complete with legal machinations and a stalled leadership transition, is reducing the credibility of the U.S. model in the world’s eyes and providing an opening for authoritarians to critique it. But the U.S. system’s special ability to generate enormous wealth, power, and influence on the global stage more than outweighs these liabilities.

Democratic systems tend to produce sound economic institutions that spark innovation and generate high, long-run rates of economic growth. America has been the world’s largest economy since the 1890s and its innovation leader since the time of Thomas Edison. Companies listed on Wall Street and U.S. Treasurys remain the world’s safest investments, placing the United States at the center of the global financial system.

Democracies are better at building alliances and partnerships, and America’s global network of friends, including 29 other members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others, combine to make up 59 percent of global GDP. Democracies also tend to win the wars they fight, and the United States remains the world’s only military superpower with global power-projecting capabilities

At the same time, the CCP is undermining China’s effectiveness. Dictators prioritize economic control over economic performance. President Xi Jinping is renationalizing parts of the Chinese economy and backtracking on Beijing’s promised economic reforms, even though this stalls China’s growth.

Dictators like Xi struggle to forge enduring international friendships, and unfavorable views of China have reached all-time highs around the world. Finally, autocracies’ greatest weakness is domestic insecurity. China spends more on internal repression than on its military. If you follow the money, the CCP is more afraid of Uighurs and protesters in Hong Kong than of the Pentagon.

These U.S. and allied strengths and Chinese weaknesses should be exploited in any successful competitive strategy. But ignoring these ideological differences would cause the West to overlook its significant competitive advantages with potentially disastrous consequences.

Those who dismiss the ideological nature of this challenge argue that viewing China through an ideological lens would undermine the U.S. strategy in a variety of ways, but they are mistaken.

They claim that Washington will need to work with autocratic countries, like Vietnam and Singapore, whose interests are also threatened by China’s assertive behavior but that the United States will alienate them if it emphasizes China’s autocratic politics. This is also a false choice.

Washington can recognize the ideological dimension of this challenge and emphasize it to rally the free world even as it maintains pragmatic security partnerships with friendly autocratic governments. Indeed, U.S. foreign policy has followed just such an approach for decades with great success, including its current policy of aligning with nondemocratic Gulf states, like the United Arab Emirates, against Iran.

Those who minimize the threat of CCP ideology also claim that an ideological competition requires that Washington pursue maximalist goals like dismantling the CCP, but this does not follow. The United States and its allies and partners can recognize and exploit the ideological dimensions of this competition even as they set modest goals. Indeed, the goal of great-power competition should be to change the minds of China’s leaders and encourage them to follow a more cooperative approach, regardless of whether they stand behind the CCP banner in the years to come.

Finally, critics charge that taking ideology seriously requires believing that overthrowing the CCP and spreading liberal democracy throughout the world will end all of our problems. But this is also a non sequitur. Conflicts of interest would certainly remain between a democratic China and the United States, but they would be different, and likely less severe, than those that exist today. The resulting relationship would be more akin to present U.S. frustrations with India or the European Union than to a global death match.

There is an undeniable ideological dimension to U.S.-China competition, and Washington should embrace it. If these were just morally equivalent great powers jockeying for position, then other nations, even traditional U.S. allies in Europe, would be reluctant to choose a side.

The United States and China are not morally equivalent. The United States is the leader of the free world and the principal architect of a rules-based international system that has brought the world 75 years of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom. China under the CCP is a revisionist autocracy vying to disrupt and displace this system.

If it succeeds, the consequences could include increased conflict and decreased standards of living and human rights within the CCP’s sphere of influence and, over time, globally. This competition is about more than power politics—and freedom-loving people worldwide should recognize they have a direct stake in its outcome.

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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