US President Joe Biden has repeatedly cast his country’s rivalry with China as a battle between democracy and autocracy, an ideological clash reminiscent of the Cold War. This narrative is inaccurate – the United States and China are locked in a competition for strategic dominance – and all but precludes resolution. Whereas demands related to tangible assets and security concerns can be accommodated, ideological struggles typically end one way: with the unconditional defeat of one of the parties.
The US should not be attempting to “defeat” China, as it did the Soviet Union, because, first and foremost, China is not on a quest to spread “socialism with Chinese characteristics” around the world. When Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in 2017 that “war without the smoke of gunpowder in the ideological domain is ubiquitous, and the struggle without armament in the political sphere has never stopped,” he was mainly demanding that outsiders respect China’s institutions and cultural traditions.
This partly reflects Chinese nationalism, fed by historical narratives, especially the memory of the “century of humiliation” (1839-1949), during which China faced interventions and subjugation by Western powers and Japan. But it is also pragmatic: The Communist Party of China recognizes that some domestic trends could destabilize the country and eventually even undermine the CPC’s rule.
For example, China’s economic rise has produced an educated, well-connected, and fast-growing middle class. If these increasingly powerful consumers rejected restrictions on private-sector activity or limits to free expression, the CPC would have trouble on its hands. Given this, the CPC views US advocacy of political freedom and human rights in China as an effort to subvert its rule.
Even America’s drive to export liberal democracy to Asia and Africa has been less an ideological problem for China than a strategic one. Functioning democracies are likely to be harder bargaining partners for China and might even be brought into US-led anti-Chinese alliances.
On this front, China’s fears have probably been assuaged by recent developments. With the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s quick reconquest of the country, America’s democratic “crusade” – to borrow the language of former US President George W. Bush – seems to have reached an ignominious conclusion.
But even if the US is not bringing new countries into the democratic fold, its existing alliance system is formidable, and Biden is committed to strengthening it further. For example, he has worked to resuscitate NATO; created AUKUS, a new defense and technology alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia; and deepened security cooperation among key democracies in the Indo-Pacific (Australia, India, Japan, and the US, known as the “Quad”).
This focus on alliances is probably the biggest difference between Biden’s China policy and that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who spearheaded the shift toward confrontation. (Prior to Trump, recent US presidents largely attempted to maintain good working relations with China, not least because they clung to the assumption that the country’s economic rise would gradually bring about political change.)
For China, this difference is worrying. Though the US cannot contain China alone, it can apply strong diplomatic pressure if it has other powers on its side, and China is in no position to create an alliance system that can match that of the US. Far from stabilizing the situation, however, this imbalance could fuel China’s insecurity, making constructive engagement all the more difficult.
America’s position is hardly unassailable, either. Biden’s touted Summit for Democracy exposed the limits of ideology as a mobilizing tool for a global anti-China coalition. It does not help that America’s own democracy is plagued by polarization, paralysis, and discontent. Add to that the world’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths, and the “shining city on a hill” has lost its luster, to say the least.
While the US is no ancient Rome – not least because it retains extraordinary advantages in crucial areas, from defense and diplomacy to technology and finance – it is suffering from what the historian Edward Gibbon described as “the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” It has failed to adapt its democratic institutions to meet the needs of its population and its responsibilities as a world power.
Ultimately, the US is an exhausted power, and it is now being challenged by a rising one. This dynamic is as longstanding as it is dangerous. As the ancient historian Thucydides explained, the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, made the catastrophic Peloponnesian War inevitable. Harvard’s Graham Allison notes that there have been 16 similar cases in the last 500 years. War broke out in 12 of them.
To avoid what Allison calls the Thucydides Trap, the US must abandon jingoistic rhetoric and Manichean thinking, replacing megaphone diplomacy with wise and creative statesmanship. The choice is not between capitulating to China and crushing it. The US must recognize China’s legitimate concerns and aspirations, and it must be prepared to negotiate accordingly. (Sooner or later, it will have to do the same with regard to the West’s current showdown vis-à-vis Russia over Ukraine and NATO’s expansion.)
The US must accept that the days of American hegemony are over. In today’s multipolar world, different political cultures and systems will have to learn to coexist. The ideological defeat of the Soviet Union did not exactly usher in a liberal democracy. Perhaps more important, even if China somehow suddenly became a liberal democracy, its historical grievances and territorial aspirations would remain, as is the case with Russia today. In this sense, ideological competition is beside the point.
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