Whether we call it great-power competition or a new Cold War, there’s no denying the United States and China are engaged in an intense long-term rivalry. But many observers, especially foreign-policy generalists and realists, seem to believe that the U.S.-China conflict is driven by geopolitics, not ideology.
They argue that China has embraced capitalism, doesn’t export its ideology, and doesn’t pose an existential threat to liberal democracy and the Western way of life in the way the Soviet Union once did. In this interpretation, sometimes bringing up Thucydides, the problem is simply the rise of China’s power, which inevitably clashes with the established superpower, the United States, regardless of their political systems. But in reality, ideology has always played a massive role in driving the conflict—and many tensions would have been avoided if the West dealt with a democratic China.
It always takes two to tango. Even if the United States somehow chose to ignore this ideological dimension, many in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership wouldn’t, as they already see this conflict through an ideological lens. That framing is already very clear in Beijing’s language—and its actions. In recent countersanctions against the European Union, Beijing has targeted not just members of European Parliament and member nations’ parliaments, researchers, and think tanks, but even committees of the European Parliament and the European Council. These measures came down even though EU leaders have been keen to sign an investment agreement with China, which is now in doubt.
Think about what a real geopolitical conflict looks like: China and India. Chinese leaders are not afraid that India wants to promote democracy and threaten the regime’s stability. In India, China could go democratic tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter as long as the active border dispute remains, China is Pakistan’s best friend, and Chinese military vessels remain increasingly active in the Indian Ocean. Equally, China doesn’t really care what system New Delhi uses.
In contrast, ideological fears have always underpinned Beijing and Washington’s views of each other. The U.S.-PRC rapprochement that began in 1971 finally led to the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979, followed by ever-stronger economic ties. But previous decades of confrontation could not be easily undone. Among conservatives in the Chinese leadership, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision to strengthen relations with the United States, like the economic reforms of the 1980s, was accepted as necessary but never fully embraced. The economic reforms themselves were seen by party leadership as a necessary tool to develop China and one day make communism possible, just as Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin implemented the New Economic Policy soon after taking power. They weren’t supposed to be a shift to capitalism and most certainly not to democracy.
And then came the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chinese conservatives and hard-liners saw it as a ploy to democratize and destabilize China. Even Deng said “the causes of this incident have to do with the global context. The Western world, especially the United States, has thrown its entire propaganda machine into agitation work and has given a lot of encouragement and assistance to the so-called democrats or opposition in China—people who in fact are the scum of the Chinese nation. This is the root of the chaotic situation we face today.” Democracy, the hard-liners argued, was a Western plot to bring chaos to China. The fall of the Soviet Union and the misery of the Russian 1990s only confirmed those feelings.
Suddenly, the PRC was the last great bastion of communism and, to Beijing, the main target of the United States and the capitalist world. Little did it matter that Washington tried to preserve relations. In fact, to party hard-liners, U.S. engagement with China was a strategy to subvert the CCP through “peaceful evolution,” taking advantage of economic ties to promote “Western values” and democracy.
To certain elements in the party, military and government, the next decade brought more proof of Washington’s perceived double-dealing, containment, and ultimate goal of regime change: the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers near Taiwan, the bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade, and the Hainan island incident. These people weren’t necessarily a coherent faction and, for many years, didn’t control the entire party. This view of the United States wasn’t pervasive in Beijing, but it influenced government actions, even among non-hard-liners. But the CCP was never a monolith: There were also officials who admired the United States and even hoped economic reforms would be accompanied by political ones.
Yet it was the conservatives and hard-liners who got lucky and piggybacked on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise to power starting in 2008, their views finally prevailing in the party beginning in 2012 and 2013. By then, to Beijing, the United States had already shown once again it cannot be trusted—the Obama administration had announced its Asia-Pacific rebalancing, which to quite a few in the leadership simply mean “containment.” But their main worry wasn’t geopolitical.
This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in Foreign Policy. You can read the full article on Foreign Policy’s website.