Andrew Nathan Responds
China is not one of those regimes, like Iran, whose commitment to a world-changing ideology causes it to pursue foreign policies that are damaging to its own security. Instead, the Middle Kingdom of today is a realist power, concerned with regime survival, territorial integrity, and protecting access to resources and markets.
This means that a change of regime in China is unlikely to bring a fundamental change in the country’s foreign-policy objectives. Democratic rulers in Beijing would still want to preserve control over Tibet and Xinjiang and assert Chinese authority over Taiwan because these territories have fundamental strategic importance for the defense of China. A democratic leadership would also want to press its claims to valuable strategic and economic assets in the East China and South China Seas; build up its navy so that it can participate in the defense of the sea-lanes that are crucial to the country’s prosperity; project influence in crucial neighboring regions like Central Asia, Korea and Southeast Asia; maintain the military capability to deter attacks; exercise influence in the far-flung territories where it acquires resources and sells goods; and in general, pursue much the same national-security agenda as the authoritarian regime follows today. Indeed, as Friedberg points out, a democratic China may be in some respects even a little harder to deal with than the current regime because of its responsiveness to public opinion, which is likely to be nationalistic.
The big difference between today’s China and a democratic China would not be in the security imperatives that geography imposes on anyone who rules this piece of territory but in one of the key threats that the government now faces: the Western challenge to the existence of the regime. It is not only that current Chinese leaders believe that the United States intends to “topple [their regime] through a combination of confrontation and subversion.” It is also that, as Friedberg says, “[American] ideology inclines the United States to be more suspicious and hostile toward China than it would be for strategic reasons alone.” He puts the point even more clearly in his forthcoming book, A Contest for Supremacy, from which his essay is drawn: “Stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy [toward China] is to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.”