The ideological dimension of U.S. geopolitical competition with China has become unmistakable. Not only the United States, but other allies including those in Europe now use terms such as “systemic competition” in official documents to describe the challenge from China. Xi Jinping has made ideological confrontation a central theme of his social mobilization campaign at home and abroad using slogans such as “rise of the East and decline of the West” that evoke anti-Western propaganda from pre-war Japan. Questions of technology decoupling, development assistance, academic exchange, and sports are all now viewed through an ideological prism as each side challenges the other’s political predicate.
Yet if competition with China is increasingly about zero-sum ideological outcomes, how should the United States integrate the defense of democracy into its overall strategy toward China? The temptation will be to wrap all policy issues in ideological narratives that cast this as a historic battle for the defense of Western democracy—one akin to WWII or the Cold War. This approach would simplify the politics of mobilizing public support for the defense and technology investments needed to compete against China. The messianic framing will also likely feature prominently in the 2022 congressional midterm and 2024 presidential elections as candidates point to the China challenge to undermine their opponents and advocate for greater freedom (on the right) or social welfare spending (on the left).
The domestic framing of foreign policy is a critical component of effective grand strategy, to be sure, as modern presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have demonstrated. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are right to be clear-eyed about the ideological dimension of the challenge from China. However, a durable strategy to compete with China will also require careful examination of the chessboard in Asia—where the game will be far more nuanced and ultimately consequential than the political game in Washington. The fact is that rising powers throughout history have always demonstrated revisionist behavior in their own near abroad before pursuing global ambitions, and always with a heavy ideological thrust. Prior hegemonic challengers in Asia, like Japan, sought to displace the Western powers with a combination of technology, infrastructure investments, military conquest, and pan-Asian anti-democratic authoritarianism. China’s historical context is different, of course, but Beijing’s toolkit today is strikingly similar to 1930s Japan’s. Blunting Chinese revisionism in Asia will require a comprehensive U.S. toolkit that incorporates support for democracy on terms that will win battles on the ground in this epicenter of geopolitical confrontation with Beijing.
A U.S. strategy in support of democratic norms in Asia must begin with an accurate understanding of the evolving geopolitical dynamics of the region. Beijing has claimed in official and scholarly documents for over two decades that the global system is multipolar (with the United States, China, Russia, and Europe as the major and independent power centers) while Asia is bipolar with the United States and China as the two regional power centers with Beijing as the representative of the “East” and the United States of the “West.” Xi’s 2013 proposal for a “New Model of Great Power Relations” was designed to win U.S. support for this bipolar condominium at the expense of U.S. allies and partners like Japan, Australia, Korea, or India. However, the reality is that Asia is moving toward a multipolarity in which U.S. allies and emerging powers like India and Indonesia clearly prefer U.S. leadership and democratic norms to Chinese hegemony or authoritarianism. U.S. diplomacy should consistently highlight that our leadership role is to make Asia safe for these diverse Asian approaches to democracy and avoid narratives that present the United States as the ultimate authority for what constitutes democratic norms. Framing U.S. support for democracy as a bipolar ideological contest with China—whether intentional or not—risks driving some Asian democracies underground and reinforces China’s narrative that only “Western” countries and Japan really side with the United States.
Leverage Allies And Partners.
The United States has an opportunity to harness Asian multipolarity around the democracy agenda because democracies in the region are beginning to play more of a supportive role of their own. Japan and South Korea have both significantly increased support for democratic governance in their official development assistance over the past decade, and Japan’s new Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has appointed the country’s first special advisor on human rights. Australia has been a leader in development assistance in areas such as women’s empowerment. India provides technical assistance for elections and the judiciary, and Indonesia hosts the annual Bali Democracy Forum where states network and learn from Indonesia’s own democratic transition experience. While Australia’s approach largely aligns with the United States, and Japan and Korea are trending in that same direction, post-colonial countries like India or Indonesia with histories of non- alignment are far more circumspect about imposing norms and far more permis- sive in defining “democracy” (the Bali Democracy Forum often includes Pakistan and Iran, for example). Nevertheless, these diverse approaches could have greater impact on the ground if there were stronger coordination and mutual learning. And in many parts of developing Asia, the examples of Korea or Indonesia will be far more relevant and persuasive than definitions of democracy presented from Washington. This is not how the U.S. aid or democracy communities typically think about their work, but in a multipolar Asia under duress from China, there is a clear strategic logic to now thinking differently about partnerships.
Align Development Finance And Support For Democracy.
The Trump Administration and Congress deserve credit for establishing the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to expand U.S. support for infrastructure projects alongside the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the government of Australia. The Biden Administration needs to put leadership in place for the DFC and expand lending authority beyond what the Office of Management and Budget allowed during the Trump Administration. The Biden Administration should also ensure that democracy and governance assistance reinforce accountability around infrastructure projects. Even if the United States, Japan, and Australia offer higher-quality infrastructure financing to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China can distort decisions through bribery and corruption. An independent civil society, judiciary, press, and parliament will ensure accountability and a level playing field to prevent further debt traps and neo-imperial control of critical infrastructure in developing Asia.
Cooperate To Counter Foreign Interference.
In 2018, authorities in Australia, Mongolia, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Singapore all began noticing similar patterns of Chinese interference in their domestic politics, including social media attacks, bribing of political or government leaders, use of United Front tactics in universities, and weaponizing of Chinese-language media against Beijing’s critics. Australia took the firmest response in policy and legislation, and other democracies took note. The United States should formalize a network of counterintelligence officials across the region for early warning, sharing of best practices, and quick response to future incursions.
Democratic governments struggle with the question of whether high-profile sup- port for political victims of conscience is worth the resulting friction with Beijing since China now rarely responds to such pressure. However, visible support for icons of freedom from Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or China’s own shrinking civil society is more important than ever as a demonstration that democracies will not reduce vigilance—something dissidents themselves frequently cite as indispensable to their own struggles and survival. With Japan’s new human rights policy and growing consciousness about Xinjiang and Hong Kong around the world (and particularly with a younger generation across democratic Asia right now), there are new opportunities for coordinated demonstrations of support for political dissidents.
Vietnam is an important example of why U.S. policy should encourage on-ramps to democracy rather than just emphasizing off-ramps for authoritarians. Hanoi is a one-party state that continues repression of dissent, yet the Vietnamese leadership also relaxed religious restrictions in the bid for closer economic ties with the United States during the Bush Administration and then agreed to significant labor and human rights improvements to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the Obama Administration. The Vietnamese premier stated recently that his country would undertake further human rights reforms in the bid to woo more investment away from China as democratic nations recoil at genocide in Xinjiang. Japan and Australia were particularly concerned at Hanoi’s exclusion from the Summit for Democracy since they see Vietnam as a strategic partner vis-à-vis China that could be coaxed to continue reforming. It would have been difficult for Biden to include Vietnam in a summit for democracy, but the Administration needs to think about an approach for engaging Hanoi on democratic reforms in a more affirmative way going forward.
Bend Beijing’s Sense Of History.
Xi Jinping’s presentation of China as being on the right side of history is largely based on Beijing’s argument that democracy has failed to deliver the same suc- cesses as Beijing’s own brand of “com- mon destiny.” Xi is not likely to abandon that argument, but in the longer-term competition with Beijing, it is critical to demonstrate to Chinese audiences that his proposition is wrong. This obviously means tending to democratic shortcomings in the United States and with our allies in Asia (many of whom have also seen relative declines in performance: South Korea on checks-and-bal- ances, Japan on women’s political participation, and India on religious tolerance, for example). In addition to demonstrating that democracy works within the democratic camp, it will also be important to demonstrate that important states are transitioning (hence the pivotal example of Vietnam). In the longer run, if China is surrounded by transparent and well-governed states, then the pressure will increase on Chinese investors and officials to move away from debt traps and coercion and be more accountable to the governed in those states. Ultimately, it would be a mistake for the United States to predicate strategic competition on the immutability of the Chinese Communist Party. That undersells confidence in the power of democratic norms, eases Xi’s own propaganda effort, and puts U.S. allies and partners in a difficult position since none are prepared to sign onto a strategy toward Beijing aimed at regime change.
Stand By Taiwan.
Polls show that the American and Japanese people are far more willing today to help defend Taiwan, and for good reason: The Chinese takeover of Taiwan would risk the First Island Chain and Japan’s sea lanes; place 80 percent of high-end semiconductor fabrication under Beijing’s control; and shake the credibility of the U.S. alliance network in Asia. Successful Chinese coercion of Taiwan would also represent the first such example against a liberal democracy since World War II (Ukraine and Georgia do not come close to Taiwan’s level of democratic governance). Former Secretary of State George Shultz argued that there is a rea- son that democracies are more willing to fight for each other—because coercion by an authoritarian state of one weakens the security of the others. While the United States should not extend a full security guarantee to Taiwan like those extended to Japan, Australia, or Korea, greater clarity in the U.S. determination to respond to aggression against Taiwan is needed and matters to these other allies—not only because of geography and technology, but also because it demonstrates the values that underpin the American commitment to those treaty allies.
Democracy And Deep Engagement
American diplomats serving on the frontlines in Asia know that successful com- petition with China depends on deep engagement with third countries in the region more often than it does directly countering China. Earlier generations of Asia hands recoiled at the idea that the United States would somehow emphasize democracy in its engagement with the region. Leading Asia scholars in the 1980s argued that authoritarianism was culturally determined in much of “Confucian” Asia . . . until waves of democratization in the late 1980s (Korea, Philippines, and Taiwan) and 1990s (Indonesia, Mongolia) proved them wrong. The current set- backs among democracies in the region must be set against this remarkable history and the continued aspirations in the region for improved democratic governance over authoritarianism. Fortunately, a newer generation of American diplomats and scholars appreciates this dynamic and is looking to advance democratic governance in a context that resonates with the region. While rarely a topic of discussion in Washington, U.S. strategy for defending democracy and competing with China should find ways to empower those on the front lines in Asia.