Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics

Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics

Mini Teaser: At its core, ideology fuels the epic struggle between Washington and Beijing. Deeply insecure about its own legitimacy, the Communist Party seeks the subordination of its regional neighbors to appease the nationalist wing of its body politic.

by Author(s): Aaron L. Friedberg

Seen in this light, disputes between the United States and China over such issues as censorship and religious freedom are not just superficial irritants that can be dissolved or wished away. They are instead symptomatic of much deeper difficulties. To most Americans, China’s human-rights violations are not only intrinsically wrong, they are also powerful indicators of the morally distasteful nature of the Beijing regime. While the United States may be able to do business with such a government on at least some issues, the possibility of a warm, trusting and stable relationship is remote to say the least.

Democracies also tend to regard nondemocracies as inherently untrustworthy and dangerously prone to external aggression. Because of the secrecy in which their operations are cloaked, the intentions, and often the full extent of the military capabilities of nondemocratic states, are difficult to discern. In recent years, U.S. officials have pressed their Chinese counterparts to be more “transparent” about defense programs, but there is little expectation that these pleas will be answered in any meaningful way. And even if Beijing were to suddenly unleash a flood of facts and figures, American analysts would regard them with profound skepticism, scrutinizing the data for signs of deception and disinformation. And they would be right to do so; the centralized, tightly controlled Chinese government is far better situated to carry off such schemes than its open, divided and leaky American counterpart.

Their capacity for secrecy also makes it easier for nondemocracies to use force without warning. Since 1949, China’s rulers have shown a particular penchant for deception and surprise attacks. (Think of Beijing’s entry into the Korean War in December 1950, or its attack on India in October 1962.) This tendency may have deep roots in Chinese strategic culture extending back to Sun Tzu, but it is also entirely consistent with the character of its current domestic regime. Indeed, for most American analysts, the authoritarian nature of China’s government is a far greater concern than its culture. If China were a democracy, the deep social and cultural foundations of its strategic and political behavior might be little changed, but American military planners would be much less worried that it might someday attempt a lightning strike on U.S. forces and bases in the western Pacific.

Such fears of aggression are heightened by an awareness that anxiety over a lack of legitimacy at home can cause nondemocratic governments to try to deflect popular frustration and discontent toward external enemies. Some Western observers worry, for example, that if China’s economy falters its rulers will try to blame foreigners and even manufacture crises with Taiwan, Japan or the United States in order to rally their people and redirect the population’s anger. Whatever Beijing’s intent, such confrontations could easily spiral out of control. Democratic leaders are hardly immune to the temptation of foreign adventures. However, because the stakes for them are so much lower (being voted out of office rather than being overthrown and imprisoned, or worse), they are less likely to take extreme risks to retain their hold on power.

But the mistrust between Washington and Beijing is not a one-way street—and with good reason. China’s current rulers do not see themselves as they once did, as the leaders of a global revolutionary movement, yet they do believe that they are engaged in an ideological struggle, albeit one in which, until very recently, they have been almost entirely on the defensive. While they regard Washington’s professions of concern for human rights and individual liberties as cynical and opportunistic, China’s leaders do not doubt that the United States is motivated by genuine ideological fervor. As seen from Beijing, Washington is a dangerous, crusading, liberal, quasi-imperialist power that will not rest until it imposes its views and its way of life on the entire planet. Anyone who does not grasp this need only read the speeches of U.S. officials, with their promises to enlarge the sphere of democracy and rid the world of tyranny.

In fact, because ideology inclines the United States to be more suspicious and hostile toward China than it would be for strategic reasons alone, it also tends to reinforce Washington’s willingness to help other democracies that feel threatened by Chinese power, even if this is not what a pure realpolitik calculation of its interests might seem to demand. Thus the persistence—indeed the deepening—of American support for Taiwan during the 1990s cannot be explained without reference to the fact that the island was evolving from an authoritarian bastion of anti-Communism to a liberal democracy. Severing the last U.S. ties to Taipei would remove a major source of friction with China and a potential cause of war. Such a move might even be conceivable if Taiwan still appeared to many Americans as it did in the 1970s, as an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship. But the fact that Taiwan is now seen as a genuine (if flawed) democracy will make it extremely difficult for Washington to ever willingly cut it adrift.

Having watched America topple the Soviet Union through a combination of confrontation and subversion, since the end of the Cold War China’s strategists have feared that Washington intends to do the same to them. This belief colors Beijing’s perceptions of virtually every aspect of U.S. policy toward it, from enthusiasm for economic engagement to efforts to encourage the development of China’s legal system. It also shapes the leadership’s assessments of America’s activities across Asia, which Beijing believes are aimed at encircling it with pro-U.S. democracies, and informs China’s own policies to counter that influence.

As China emerges onto the world stage it is becoming a source of inspiration and material support for embattled authoritarians in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America as well as Asia—antidemocratic holdouts who looked to be headed for the garbage heap of history after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Americans may have long believed that growth requires freedom of choice in the economic realm (which is presumed to lead ineluctably to the expansion of political liberties), but, at least for now, the mainland has successfully blended authoritarian rule with market-driven economics. If it comes to be seen as offering an alternative model for development, China’s continued growth under authoritarian rule could complicate and slow America’s long-standing efforts to promote the spread of liberal political institutions around the world.

Fear that the United States has regime change on the brain is also playing an increasing role in the crafting of China’s policies toward countries in other parts of the world. If the United States can pressure and perhaps depose the current leaders of Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Iran, it may be emboldened in its efforts to do something similar to China. By helping those regimes survive, Beijing wins friends and allies for future struggles, weakens the perception that democracy is on the march and deflects some of America’s prodigious energies away from itself. Washington’s efforts to isolate, coerce and possibly undermine dictatorial “rogue” states (such as Iran and North Korea) have already been complicated, if not defeated, by Beijing’s willingness to engage with them. At the same time, of course, China’s actions also heighten concern in Washington about its motivations and intentions, thereby adding more fuel to the competitive fire.

IT MAY well be that any rising power in Beijing’s geopolitical position would seek substantial influence in its own immediate neighborhood. It may also be true that, in light of its history, and regardless of how it is ruled, China will be especially concerned with asserting itself and being acknowledged by its neighbors as the first among equals. But it is the character of the nation’s domestic political system that will ultimately be decisive in determining precisely how it defines its external objectives and how it goes about pursuing them.

As Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Fairbank Center points out, when we speak of “China’s” intentions or strategy, we are really talking about the aims and plans of today’s top leaders or, as he describes them, “the nine male engineers who make up the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.” Everything we know of these men suggests that they are motivated above all else by their belief in the necessity of preserving CCP rule. This is, in one sense, a matter of unadulterated self-interest. Today’s leaders and their families enjoy privileges and opportunities that are denied others in Chinese society and which flow directly from their proximity to the sources of political power. The end of the Communist Party’s decades-long reign would have immediate, painful and perhaps even fatal consequences for those at the top of the system. Rising stars who hope one day to occupy these positions and even junior officials with more modest ambitions will presumably make similar calculations. This convergence of personal interests and a sense of shared destiny give the party-state a cohesion that it would otherwise lack. Party members know that if they do not hang together they may very well hang separately—and this knowledge informs their thinking on every issue they face.

Image: Pullquote: Seen from Beijing, Washington is a dangerous, crusading, liberal, quasi-imperialist power that will not rest until it imposes its views on the entire planet.Essay Types: Essay