Whether we call it a great power competition or a new cold war, there is no denying that the United States and China are embroiled in an intense long-term rivalry. However, many observers, especially foreign policy generalists and realists, seem to believe that the US-China conflict is geopolitics rather than ideology-driven.
They argue that China has embraced capitalism, has not exported its ideology, and does not pose an existential threat to liberal democracy and the Western way of life, as the Soviet Union once did. In a foreign policy argument last year sometimes addressing Thucydides, the author argues that the problem is simply the rise of power in China, which inevitably clashes with the established superpower, the United States, regardless of its political systems. In reality, ideology has always played a massive role in starting the conflict – and much tension would have been avoided if the West had dealt with a democratic China.
You always need two to tango. Even if the United States somehow ignored this ideological dimension, many in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would not do so because they already see this conflict through an ideological lens. This framework is already very clear in Beijing's language and actions. In the recent countermeasures against the European Union, Beijing has targeted not only members of the European Parliament and parliaments, researchers and think tanks of the member states, but also committees of the European Parliament and the European Council. These measures have been halted despite EU leaders keen to sign an investment deal with China, which is currently 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 endanger the stability of the regime. In India, China could become democratic tomorrow, and it would not matter as long as the active border dispute persists, China is Pakistan's best friend, and Chinese military ships increasingly remain active in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, China doesn't care what system New Delhi uses.
In contrast, ideological fears have always underpinned Beijing and Washington views. The rapprochement between the US and the PRC, which began in 1971, eventually led to the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979, followed by ever stronger economic ties. But earlier decades of confrontation could not be easily undone. Among the conservatives in the Chinese leadership, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's decision to strengthen ties 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 the party leadership as a necessary tool for the development of China and for making communism possible, just as the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin implemented the new economic policy shortly after he came to power. They shouldn't be a shift to capitalism and most certainly not to democracy.
And then came the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chinese conservatives and hardliners 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 put its entire propaganda machine into agitation work and has given a lot of encouragement and support to the so-called democrats or opposition in China – people who are actually the scum of the Chinese nation. This is the root of the chaotic situation we face today. “Democracy, the hardliners argued, was a Western conspiracy to bring chaos to China. The fall of the Soviet Union and the misery of the Russian 1990s only confirmed these feelings.
Suddenly, the PRC was the last great bastion of communism and for Beijing the main target of the United States and the capitalist world. It didn't matter that Washington was trying to keep relations going. For hardliners, the US engagement in China was a strategy to undermine the CCP through "peaceful evolution" and to use economic ties to promote "Western values" and democracy.
For certain elements in the party, military, and government, the next decade brought more evidence of Washington's perceived double-trade, 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 beyond the incident on Hainan Island. These people were not necessarily a coherent faction and did not control the entire party for many years. This US view was not ubiquitous in Beijing, but it did influence government action, even among non-hardliners. But the CCP was never a monolith: there were also officials who admired the United States and even hoped that economic reforms would be accompanied by political reforms.
However, it was the conservatives and hardliners who got lucky and piggybacked the rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping to power from 2008 onwards. Their views finally prevailed in the party from 2012 and 2013. By then, the United States had already traveled to Beijing and demonstrated once again that it cannot be trusted – the Obama administration had announced its realignment in the Asia-Pacific region, which for some in the leadership simply means "containment". However, their main concern wasn't geopolitical.
A relatively new concept became popular – USA. Officials and analysts focused on whether places like the South China Sea could be identified as core interests. But they overlooked the most important message: At the forefront of the PRC's core interests were neither rocks in the sea nor Taiwan – it was securing their CCP-led political system. The greatest threat to the PRC was not geopolitical but ideological. And that was before the conservatives and hardliners even took power.
Once they did, they wasted no time. In an internal party document, the "Communiqué on the current state of the ideological sphere", the greatest threats to the PRC were set out: universal values, constitutional democracy, civil society, neoliberalism and the rejection of the socialist character of the country. A documentary made by elements of the Chinese military called the Silent Contest also warned that the United States was secretly trying to undermine the PRC through westernization and democratization, while arguing that the great struggle between the two countries was an ideological one .
Military officials warned not about US warships but about Western ideas. Since then, the power of the hardliners has only grown and finally took control of the party leadership in 2017 – at the same time as a new group of U.S. hardliners tried to use the U.S. government to change Washington's policy on China in 2017 .
The ideological factor also plays an important role in Washington and in the West. The PRC is seen not only as any other country, but also through the prism of its authoritarian government and the associated threat to liberal order and democracy. Ideological tensions are inevitable because Western governments and societies, at least in their currently constituted form, can never do what Beijing asks them to do, namely not to interfere in its internal affairs, that is, not to express criticism or to take any action what human rights violations can take place in his territory. This in turn leads to backlash from the Chinese leadership in a never-ending downward spiral.
For many Westerners who have never experienced a communist system, it is almost impossible to understand how hardliners Chinese think: the belief that democracy is bad because it creates diversity and thus chaos; obsession with control; the reflexive distrust of something foreign; the sheer paranoia of containment, encirclement, and foreign coalitions gathering on China; the conspiratorial mindset of "foreign enemy forces" and "black hands" secretly undermining the political system; and complete ignorance of how democratic and open societies work. At the same time, they advocate militarism and believe that power can solve any problem, while that power has few internal restrictions.
Many of the people in the leadership of the CCP are fundamentally shaped by the propaganda and ideology to which they have been subjected, but also by a political system in which there are no friends, no trust, and one can be stabbed in the back at any moment. Four of the 24 high-ranking officials who worked with Xi in the Politburo between 2007 and 2012 later became the target of a widespread anti-corruption campaign. Across China, more than 2 million officials have been disciplined since 2013. And all of these statistics cannot even be compared with the climate of fighting and fear from the time of Chairman Mao Zedong. Shaped by such a system, officials not only tend to perceive external dangers and threats when none exist, but they see China and the world through an ideological lens. They define China's interests primarily as a CCP-led state that prioritizes party government over national interests that could be defined differently by a democratic polity.
These ideological demands and paranoia create a real cost to China's relationship with others. Currently, the European country with the worst diplomatic ties with China is a peaceful and neutral Sweden that also has relatively strong economic ties with China. Why? Because of the fate of only one man: Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish citizenship, whose imprisonment in China sparked criticism and sparked a spiral of deteriorating relationships. Ten years ago, peaceful Norway found itself in the same situation again, and only because of one person: the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who received the Nobel Peace Prize. This pattern is repeated across Europe: European countries can benefit greatly from diplomatic or economic cooperation with China – but human rights issues, whether Xinjiang or Hong Kong, repeatedly trigger relationships that the European business elite would otherwise prefer. Take the UK, which is torn between trying to find new markets in China after Brexit and bipartisan calls for action against Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
All of this leads not only to a confrontation between the US and the PRC, but, as in the original Cold War, to a confrontation between the democratic world and the PRC, possibly along with their mostly authoritarian allies like Russia. Until recently, Beijing clearly wanted to maintain its economic ties with developed democratic countries, but as democracies form a united front against the PRC and economic incentives for cooperation disappear, the CCP leadership might see democracy and a free society as enemies, not just against which it is directed must defend at home, but what should it attack abroad.
If ideological competition intensifies, there is a danger that the CCP will actually become an existential threat to democracy and freedom worldwide, regardless of whether "China is not really communist." Indeed, as China's prosperity increases, as external and internal tensions deepen, and the CCP continues to radicalize, it is possible that some party members who believe in the need to return to collective economic ownership will take control of the party and China transform into a real communist country and promote the world revolution. This scenario seems far-fetched, but it cannot be completely discarded while China is ruled by a centralized authoritarian organization where some leaders deeply distrust capitalism and long for the days of Mao, while the initial decision to accept markets as a strategy was justified to reach an advanced stage of socialism.
On the other hand, there is a silver lining for the West in the fact that the US-PRC struggle for global supremacy is ideological. It is an opportunity to connect with the Chinese people and try to maintain the conflict for leadership, not China. Such a conflict could have an end game: a liberal, peaceful and cooperative China. There may still be hope that China and the United States could someday get along well.
To do this, however, the United States must focus on the ideological rather than the geopolitical sphere. Inviting authoritarian regimes like Russia or Vietnam into a geopolitical coalition against China would be a big mistake. It would confirm to the Chinese people and the world that the United States is not really interested in democracy and will confront China regardless of its political system. An ideological conflict that could one day end is better than a never-ending geopolitical conflict with China. It is important that Washington focus on the Chinese people, not just the fight against the CCP, and try to prevent the future growth of anti-Americanism in China, especially as this conflict intensifies and the party leadership tries to incite nationalism .
While Washington and Beijing are not yet focused on overthrowing each other's government, both are marked by the ideological divide between them and a fear of each other's intentions. This is not just a conflict between the US and China, but a conflict between the PRC and most of the democratic world. Just because it looks different from the Cold War doesn't mean the ideology is dead. The ideology is in the driver's seat. Buckle up.