Bipartisanship is exotic these days in the United States, but the two parties do share something: a deep concern about China. Asked in February at the Munich Security Conference whether she agreed with U.S. President Donald Trump’s China policy, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi remarked dryly but tellingly: “We have agreement in that regard.” Legislation supporting Hong Kong and Taiwan and sanctioning Chinese officials easily passed Congress this year. Unlike in the past, today China has few—if any—friends in the corridors of power in Washington.

Even beyond Congress, though, there is wide agreement forming across the political spectrum about why China poses a threat to the United States. For many, it is above all because China is an oppressive one-party state, governed by a Marxist-Leninist cadre, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has amassed more personal power than anyone in Beijing since Mao Zedong. Both the Trump administration and Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden have lambasted China for its execrable human rights record, which includes, among other brutalities, putting a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps. The leading Democratic Party-aligned foreign policy thinkers Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan wrote in these pages last year: “China may ultimately present a stronger ideological challenge than the Soviet Union did. . . . China’s rise to superpower status will exert a pull toward autocracy. China’s fusion of authoritarian capitalism and digital surveillance may prove more durable and attractive than Marxism.”  

The criticisms of China are true. The United States is indeed in an exceptionally serious competition with China that requires it to take a hard line on many fronts. And Washington should never shy away from its unabashed embrace of republican government and respect for human dignity. But ideology does not lie at the root of the matter between the United States and China—even if elements in China’s Marxist-Leninist elite think it does. The very scale of China’s economy, population, and landmass and its consequent power would cause profound concern for U.S. policymakers even if the country were a democracy. Seeing this competition as primarily ideological will misconstrue its nature—with potentially catastrophic results.

THE SOURCES OF CHINESE CONDUCT  

China is an enormous state, the largest great power to emerge in the international system since the United States itself in the late nineteenth century. It hopes to establish a position of hegemony over Asia, now the world’s largest market. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is more ideological than many admit, Beijing’s motivations in pursuing these goals are largely not ideological.

China very likely seeks to form a regional trade area favorable to its economy—a modern-day analog to the tribute system that placed China at the heart of East Asia from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. In a world now defined by rising barriers to trade, China would gain enormous advantage in shaping a large market area that conforms to its standards and benefits its workers and companies. Its drive for hegemony also has a strategic purpose. China has long felt fenced in by U.S. allies and by other rivals. Now it intends to compel neighboring states to take their security cues from Beijing. And after a “century of humiliation,” China is eager to stand tall, asserting its power in Asia and beyond.

None of these imperatives is strictly ideological. Nazi Germany and imperial Japan strove for regional hegemony, as did the postwar Soviet Union, postrevolutionary France in the early nineteenth century, and the United States in North America in the nineteenth century. The liberal United Kingdom presided over an empire with a preferential trading system, as did Third Republic France.

A man looking at a painting of Mao in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, March 2006
Claro Cortes / Reuters

However natural China’s aspirations may be, the United States has a very clear, primary interest in preventing China from attaining them. This interest is cardinal for Americans: the ability to trade and otherwise economically engage with Asia. The United States simply cannot afford to be excluded from (or seriously discriminated against in) this vast, still growing market. If that were to happen, Chinese companies would have access to a much larger market share, increasingly outclassing U.S. firms. The United States would become prey to Chinese coercive leverage, with American prosperity and ultimately security in jeopardy.

Fortunately, many other states in Asia and beyond also want to ensure that China cannot dominate the region. These states come in a variety of shades, ranging from Australia and Japan to India and Vietnam. All of them, regardless of their domestic political arrangements, share an interest in preserving their autonomy from domineering Chinese influence. Led by the United States, these states can together form a coalition to block China’s attempt to gain hegemony over Asia.

THE WRONG LENS

Building such a coalition will be difficult if U.S. policymakers insist on seeing competition with China as primarily ideological. Even worse, it could lead to far more negative outcomes than necessary. By definition, an ideological struggle makes the rivalry an existential cage match, heightening its intensity and risks even further. A primarily ideological prism demands that the United States work to transform the Chinese state and system, in turn giving Beijing all the more reason to go to potentially catastrophic lengths to avert defeat. The truth is that the United States can live with a China governed by the CCP—as long as it respects U.S. interests and those of its allies and partners.

An excessively ideological view can block the potential for a more stable relationship if a Communist Party–led China is willing to respect these interests. Americans have been down this road before. In 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles famously refused to shake Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s hand—an example of an attitude that contributed to Washington’s failure to exploit the Sino-Soviet split and to the U.S. entanglement in Vietnam. Eighteen years later, on the other hand, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger negotiated with Mao and Zhou in the midst of the Cultural Revolution to open a new front in the competition with the Soviet Union. President George H. W. Bush dispatched National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to negotiate with China only a month after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. These latter American leaders all realized that in great-power competition, insistence on ideological concordance or total victory is a fool’s errand—and quite possibly an invitation to disaster.

Construing the competition as principally ideological tends to turn every disturbance in another country into a test of which political system is superior. In so doing, it magnifies the importance of fundamentally peripheral events. During the Cold War, this kind of “support any friend” thinking helped lead the United States into its “long national nightmare” in Vietnam, where it fought a war that was not necessary to deny Soviet hegemony over the industrialized areas of Europe and Asia.

Ideology does not lie at the root of the tensions between the United States and China.

The United States will find it hard, if not impossible, to work with less liberal or nondemocratic states if it sees things primarily through an ideological prism. But many of the most important states that might join a coalition to deny China regional hegemony either are not democracies, such as Vietnam, or, like India and Malaysia, are democracies that many criticize as illiberal. No country in the critical region of Southeast Asia is likely to qualify as a model democracy. Overemphasizing ideology in the competition with China would inhibit collaboration with or risk alienating these countries, making it much more difficult to deny China its goal of regional hegemony. It’s no use for the United States to have Denmark or the Netherlands onboard but not Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, or Vietnam.

To conceive of the competition as fundamentally ideological is also deceptive. Doing so risks indulging the chimerical hope that once liberal democracy has spread throughout the world, strategic competition will end and the United States can peacefully collaborate with like-minded states in a secure globe. This false, millenarian hope raises unrealistic expectations rather than preparing Americans for sustained engagement and competition in world politics.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s subsequent trajectory, should have taught Americans that even if such a formidable, ideologically opposed adversary gives up and changes its political system, that domestic transformation does not necessarily resolve the fundamental strategic tensions. Contemporary Russia may well be more strongly opposed to the West than was the Soviet Union in the 1980s, following détente, the Helsinki Accords, and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev.

A HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

Early in the Cold War, the United States faced a similar crossroads. Some figures, such as President Dwight Eisenhower, took a tough line on the Soviet Union but counseled the need to be selective in confrontations, steering U.S. foreign policy toward selectivity and what he called the “middle way.” Others, such as the authors of NSC-68 (the influential 1950 National Security Council report in 1950), believed in an expansive, systemic approach to confronting the Soviet Union, a conviction that helped to entangle the United States in Vietnam. Washington is now at a similar juncture in a new great-power struggle, and it should choose a stance akin to Eisenhower’s.

We are not proposing a one-dimensional realpolitik. The United States must stand for freedom, republican government, and human dignity. Standing for these values will draw others around the world to the U.S. banner, help demonstrate the dangers of bowing to Beijing, and provide a motivating force to collective efforts. And we must recognize that Beijing itself thinks in at least substantially ideological terms, even if the competition is not fundamentally about ideology.  

Yet foreign policy consists of a hierarchy of needs. Foreign policy—especially in a republic—should serve the interests of a country’s citizens. Although Americans may wish for China to become a freer and more just society, their government should not be responsible for making it so, especially given the costs and risks of pursuing an excessively ideological conflict with Beijing. The United States can and should certainly emphasize respect for human dignity and political rights as a way to distinguish itself from China. But policymakers must maintain a clear-eyed perspective and be selective, especially when the stakes are so high.

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