Power Dynamics, More Than Ideology, Drive US-China Tensions – Analysis


By Denny Roy*

Many commentaries discuss a resurgent ideological struggle between China and the United States. Ideology plays a role in the current downturn in US-China relations, but it is easy to oversimplify or misunderstand this dynamic. Importantly, ideology is neither the main cause nor the most dangerous aspect of China’s challenge to the United States.

The prominence of ideology in analyses of the bilateral relationship is understandable. The governments of both China and the United States use ideological struggle as a domestic political rallying cry.

During the recent US elections, for example, both major parties tried to position themselves as tough on China. Much of the criticism pointed to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the root of poor US-China relations. On China’s part, Xi Jinping’s government has re-emphasized the threat that liberal democratic ideas pose to the CCP’s vision for the “great rejuvenation” of China, a vision premised on maintaining the party’s monopoly on national political power.

Debating China’s international behavior

Ideology figures into debates about the fundamental source of China’s noticeably more assertive international behavior during the last decade. Some analysts argue that Chinese foreign policy stems from China’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. Others say the explanation for China’s international behavior is found in the structure of the international system: China is a newly-risen major power that is now strong enough to demand that other governments accommodate Chinese preferences on strategic issues. In fact, both ideology and typical big-country dynamics are at play, but the latter is the more important driver of US-China tensions.

Like other relatively powerful countries throughout history, both China and the US want to dominate strategic affairs in the Asia Pacific region because this is the most certain and direct way to improve their own security and prosperity, the two fundamental goals of all governments. Two large states competing for influence over the same region is a sufficient condition for conflict, regardless of their particular ideologies.

If China somehow turned into a liberal democracy overnight, Beijing would still have disagreements with its neighbors over historical grievances and disputed territory and would still want to reorient regional affairs to serve its own interests. This would ensure a continuation of tensions with a United States that is still committed to regulating strategic affairs in Asia and supporting regional allies.

Clash of ideologies adds conflict but doesn’t pose inherent threat

While US-China frictions are primarily structural in nature, the clash of ideologies does prejudice each side to see the other as a natural enemy, adding an additional layer of conflict.

Americans traditionally see both communism and authoritarianism as not only affronts to American values, but also as impediments to world peace. The Marxist upbringing of CCP elites imbues them with the view that the US is an imperialist power committed to stifling leading socialist states such as China. Thus, the ideological element worsens an already bad situation.

Nevertheless, China does not pose a serious threat to the political systems or political cultures of the United States or other mature liberal democracies. Chinese elites would prefer the United States was a socialist dictatorship, mostly because they hope this would remove the danger to China of US-promoted liberalism. But there is little visible evidence that, as some allege, Marxist ideology is pushing the CCP leadership to work toward overthrowing the American political system.

Rather, serious Chinese efforts are limited to two specific areas: shaping the discourse about China, and promoting China-friendly policies. If it could, Beijing would curtail America’s freedom of speech in this area. But China’s efforts are not succeeding even in this narrow assault on one aspect of US liberty, and they certainly pose no real ideological threat to the American political system writ large. Americans have less reason to worry about subversion than do China’s top leaders.

This is not to say that the US and other target countries should not be aware of Chinese influence operations and take action when warranted. But American democracy is not in danger of overthrow by China.

Undermining developing democracies

The place to see a real US-China ideological struggle is in the developing world, among nascent or potential democracies. Promoting democratization in new places around the globe is a longstanding staple of US foreign policy. This makes Chinese leaders defensive, as they see America’s interest in democratization as part of plans to subvert CCP rule and build an anti-China “Asian NATO.”

China works against democracy and human rights programs in the United Nations, and its bilateral foreign policies undermine democratic governance in the Pacific island states, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and South Asia. But in these cases as well, China’s motivations are practical rather than ideological.

First, for its own self-preservation, the CCP is compelled to push back against the ideas that liberal democracy is superior, and that authoritarianism is doomed to the dustbin of history. Second, authoritarian states are more amenable to Beijing’s usual way of doing business, which involves nontransparent deals with elites. Functioning democracies, on the other hand, subject their leaders to scrutiny and criticism.

Primary contest is over wealth and military might

China has indeed become America’s most dangerous potential adversary, but Beijing’s main challenges to US global pre-eminence are economic and strategic, not ideological. Even Chinese opposition to the spread of democracy in the developing world is ultimately a strategic rather than an ideological problem for the United States.

In the coming decade the most pertinent ideological contest is the battle between systems: China’s state capitalism and one-party dictatorship versus America’s free-market liberal democracy. That contest will determine which nation will secure a decisive advantage in national wealth and military power. While China’s strong state can quickly mobilize resources and steamroll domestic resistance to national edicts, Americans have every reason to believe that their tradition of sheltering civil liberties and critical thinking will provide fertile ground for the creativity and innovation that will maintain America’s status as a great power.

*About the author: Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow and Supervisor of POSCO Fellowship Program, Research Program

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the East-West Center or of any other organization.

East-West Center

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

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