Author: Baogang He, Deakin University
On December 9, 2021, US President Joe Biden will hold the “Summit for Democracy,” where he is likely to reiterate his emphasis on a struggle between democracies and autocracies in the 21st century. Biden’s aim to promote democratic renewal around the world is admirable, and China must tame its authoritarian tendencies. But it is a bad strategy to frame the strategic competition between the US and China in terms of democracy versus autocracy.
This false ideological dichotomy prevents sophisticated analysis. It will amplify global polarization and fuel geopolitical competition at a time when international solidarity is desperately needed to address climate change and other shared challenges.
There is some truth to Biden’s categorization. The conflict between Washington and Beijing is about political values and the way society, economy, trade and technology are governed. Yet Washington and Beijing have many similarities. Both have implemented top-down development state measures, for example to promote their respective high-tech sectors.
Both the United States and China fall under the broadest definition of a capitalist system, with the former characterized by the domination of private capital and the latter by state-owned enterprises. The rivalry between the two countries must therefore be seen as a competition between different economic models within the same overarching capitalist system.
The framework of democracy versus autocracy provides a poor basis for the ‘new Cold War’ between the United States and China. Unlike the Cold War, in which the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union took place along liberal-capitalist and socialist-communist lines, the ‘new Cold War’ is not an ideological, religious or civilization-inspired conflict characterized by open attacks on the way every country lives. The ideological struggle between Washington and Beijing is taking place at a level well below that of the Cold War.
Democracy is hardly the guiding principle behind US involvement in Asia. While democracy has laid a solid foundation for the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, others argue that the real foundation of the agreement is white racial heritage and the shared history and culture of these countries. Indonesia, ASEAN’s largest democracy, has expressed deep concern about AUKUS.
Democracy is also a weak basis for the quadrilateral security dialogue, which India has joined for the sake of geopolitics, not for the sake of democracy. India is becoming increasingly despotic as Prime Minister Narendra Modi promotes his kind of Hindu nationalism.
Biden’s framework of democracy versus autocracy overlooks the complexities of the Chinese political system — in which village elections, participatory budgeting and local deliberative democracy have evolved — and overestimates the nature and magnitude of Chinese ideology. Beijing’s promotion of socialism at home is intended as a means of domestic control rather than a reflection of any ideological allegiance. It is a predominantly domestic matter, an important part of the internal security strategy.
The sponsorship of the socialist discourse by Chinese President Xi Jinping is primarily aimed at preventing domestic social unrest. Under his predecessor Hu Jintao, the financing of China’s internal security services exceeded that of the military budget. Obviously, such an approach is financially unsustainable, so Xi has deployed more ideological forms of control to achieve social stability.
China’s support for authoritarian states should not be mixed with active promotion of its socialist model worldwide. While China’s support has helped some authoritarian states avoid crises and collapse, it has also supported democratic countries, such as Italy and Greece. China’s aid to some authoritarian states should not be confused with a desire to create an authoritarian coalition or an authoritarian bloc against the US coalition of democracies.
Security cooperation between China, Russia and Iran is not based on shared authoritarian or ideological values, but rather is driven by pressure from Washington. The interpretation that they represent a coalition of authoritarian states is misleading. Beijing understands very well that authoritarianism alone is not enough for a coalition.
Exaggerating the narrative of democracy versus autocracy could stir feelings of alienation and resentment in Asia. Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand all have reservations about American democracy. By embracing certain countries and excluding others, Biden risks creating new divisions between US-friendly states. Perhaps Biden could instead learn from Indonesia’s inclusive approach, inviting most Asian countries – including China and Russia – to participate in the Bali Democracy Forum.
Any ideologically based rivalry should be seen as unnecessary. As Kishore Mahbubani puts it, “by viewing the new challenge to China as akin to the old Soviet strategy, America is making the classic strategic mistake of fighting tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s strategies.”
Ideological reconciliation between the United States and China is possible if the United States can develop a middle ground that recognizes some elements of China’s promotion of the right to development. Perhaps Biden’s grandchildren will heed his advice to “write their dissertation on the question of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy.” They would be in a better position to judge whether Biden is overcoming the misguided dichotomy between democracy and autocracy and averting a dangerous “new Cold War.”
Baogang He is a professor and chair of international relations at Deakin University.