The One-Sided War of Ideas With China
As Washington ramps up to defend democracy, Beijing is still motivated mostly by geography.
The Cold War was a battle of ideas to determine which side history was on: U.S. democratic capitalism or Soviet communism. The United States won. But the aftermath has proved muddled with epic Middle Eastern wars, nasty populism in Europe and the United States, and the relentless rise of an increasingly totalitarian China. Now we are embarking on what, in functional terms, is a second cold war: an intense rivalry with China that neither side sees in its interest to become “hot.” But the battle of ideas this time is all on one side.
U.S. President Joe Biden has resurrected vintage Cold War and post-Cold War doctrines of democracy and human rights as the lodestars for this new global struggle. The president is saying, in effect, that despite the disappointments and vicissitudes of the past third of a century, the U.S. idea is nevertheless eternal and signifies a direction in history: a direction consistent with moral progress.
The Chinese, unlike the Soviets, have little interest in joining this debate. Of course, the Beijing regime labels itself Marxist-Leninist and is increasingly repressive at home. But to a significant degree, it is indifferent to promoting its political values outside of China’s borders.
In fact, the motivational force for China abroad is something that does not comprise an idea at all: geography and trade. The United States tends to discount geography since it has always had it in abundance. Indeed, U.S. elites, armed with their continental geography that they take for granted, have been obsessed with freedom and human rights over the decades. But the Chinese, with a far more problematic geography, are busy looking at the map. That is the key to their Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s new imperial map starts with the Xinjiang province and with the oppression of the Turkic Uyghur Muslims there, an issue that the United States naturally views in human rights terms and China in geographical terms. For China, Xinjiang represents the arid steppe and uplands that the ethnically dominant Han Chinese, in their arable cradle of farmland adjoining the Pacific coast, have always looked upon with dread and as a fount of invasion and insurrection. Although Chinese civilization and its bureaucratic state have existed for 3,500 years, rebellious Xinjiang only became part of China’s Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century. That is, China’s frontier region actually begins within its own borders. This makes China supremely nervous. So when the Han Chinese look westward toward Xinjiang and the vast reaches of former Soviet Central Asia that lay beyond, they occupy the mentality of an insecure land power with few defensible natural barriers, for whom some form of advancing conquest is the only defense.
Xinjiang is not only the starting point for the Belt and Road Initiative westward across Central Asia to the geopolitical prize of Iran and ultimately Europe, but it is also the starting point for the Belt and Road south through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. Thus, Xinjiang is the key puzzle piece for China’s new land and maritime routes, which will allow China to hold economic sway over Eurasia and large parts of Africa. This is what the famed British geographer of the early 20th century, Halford Mackinder, called the “World-Island.” In China’s eyes, just too much is riding on Xinjiang to allow its Muslims a measure of freedom and cultural autonomy in a Han Chinese state.
From China’s perspective, despite shrinking distance by technology, geography still equates with power. But geography tells a different story than it did during the Cold War, when Europe and other parts of the world were physically divided into two blocs, each representing a different set of political values. That geographical separation was punctuated by the fact that the East and the West did almost no trade with each other. It was crucially the absence of trade and any economic ties whatsoever with the Eastern Bloc that provided Western Europe with no alternative to decades-long U.S. leadership. Now the rigors and necessities of global trade have, in effect, corrupted the liberal world order.
Today’s world is a digitally connected, humming global system of commerce that China is on its way to dominate and manipulate. Since 2014, China has been the largest trading country in the world. Half of all countries trade twice as much with China as they do with the United States. The United States’ so-called major allies—Japan, Germany, South Korea, etc.—will all soon count China as their largest trading partner.
In such circumstances, China is not overwhelmingly concerned with whether Germany and Japan are democratic or not or whether they respect human rights or not. The United States is obsessed with such questions—and so, in fact, was the Soviet Union, from the opposite philosophical standpoint, of course. But China seeks power mainly for its own sake, through trade, disinformation, hacking, espionage, whatever. China knows that in a world where everyone trades with it—and therefore requires, at some level, its approval—states will pay lip service to human rights while acting on their economic interests.
Take Pakistan, which is the most ideologically Islamic state in the world, yet its government will not condemn China’s genocidal treatment of millions of Muslim Uyghurs next door because of its massive economic and infrastructure investments in Pakistan tied to the Belt and Road Initiative. Likewise, Germany may stand on ceremony regarding human rights in China and Russia, but it intends to make the most of trade with China while allowing the completion of a second natural gas pipeline from Russia. Rather than inhabit a black and white world of moral absolutes, defined by an Iron Curtain that ran through the heart of Europe, the explosion of trade and digital technology has exposed a gray, amoral world of deal-making and opacity that cuts across continents and is more suited to China’s business-as-usual approach than to Biden’s attempt at resuscitating the liberal world order.
The Chinese believe that rather than enlightenment, they are fostering harmony. After all, China’s tribute system from the mid-14th to the mid-19th century in East Asia wrought fewer wars than the balance-of-power system did in Europe. China imagines a tribute system throughout the World-Island, in which one power, itself, dominates and lesser powers know their place, even as this system may not be particularly coercive or overbearing.
There is no moral purpose to this system. Beyond its borders, China will not be oppressive like the Soviet Union was in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, not because China disapproves of such heavy handedness but because it is too much work and serves no particular economic goal. Taiwan and Hong Kong, like Xinjiang, are another story entirely. Within the borders of the Chinese state (as Beijing conceives of it), all must be brought firmly to heel.
Whereas the Soviet Union, like the United States, believed in a moral objective to history, in its case to be achieved by Marxist principles, China has few such utopian tendencies beyond its legal borders. This makes China less self-destructive and, as a consequence, more formidable as an adversary. Trade and money—more than Marxism—are what concerns newly imperial China. History has no particular direction in China’s eyes. Thus, there is no end to it. No philosophical principle of governance will triumph. So clashing ideas don’t really count, unlike during the Cold War. Efficiency and, by inference, harmony are the only virtues. All that matters are the construction and maintenance of trade routes. In this way, an amoral age can be as brutal as an outright immoral one. Just look at what is happening to the Uyghurs.