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International Relations

The ‘Regime Security Dilemma’ in US–China Relations

Image courtesy of The White House/Flickr.

This article was originally published in The Strategist by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on 21 March 2019.

Today’s debates on whether US–China relations are deteriorating towards a ‘new cold war’ often involve disagreement over the extent to which there’s an ideological dimension to this competition. By some accounts, it’s purely about power and security, resulting from the historical inevitability of rivalry, if not outright conflict, between rising and ruling powers near a moment of transition.

In The tragedy of great power politics, John J. Mearsheimer claimed, ‘Whether China is democratic and deeply enmeshed in the global economy or autocratic and autarkic will have little effect on its behavior, because democracies care about security as much as non-democracies do, and hegemony is the best way for any state to guarantee its own survival.’ This tendency of realism to dismiss the relevance of regime type and ideational considerations is particularly problematic in the case of US–China relations.

American strategy has consistently involved a commitment to founding principles and freedoms. Even in its call for a shift to ‘principled realism’, the latest US national security strategy characterises today’s competitions as struggles between ‘those who value human freedom and dignity and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity’. Implicitly, the notion of a liberal or ‘rules-based’ global order implies a dedication to democracy and to international institutions that restrain pure power and coercion through rules that are intended to be impartially implemented.

This reality of American strategy and democracy is often perceived to pose an existential challenge to the political and regime security of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under such an order, China’s party-state has been seen at times as a historical anachronism. The CCP has continued to defy expectations of failure or collapse, demonstrating a combination of resilience and brittleness along the way, and reaping the benefits of selectively embracing the world, while preoccupied with maintaining control at any cost.

In recent history, there has been a fundamental asymmetry between American and Chinese perspectives on US policy towards China. While an approach of engagement is often characterised as primarily cooperative from an American perspective, the very notion has been seen by Beijing as a Trojan horse from the start. This asymmetry has created what might be characterised as a ‘regime security dilemma’ between China and the United States.

Although the notion of a security dilemma (that is, the dynamic in which measures that one state takes to enhance its own security threaten the security of another) is conventionally conceptualised in terms of military security, the focus of Chinese leaders on political security and regime survival has introduced a distinct ideological dimension to this relationship: American engagement with China, which has been (implicitly and often explicitly) predicated on the hope and expectation of its transformation, has often been seen as inherently threatening by the CCP.

When the threat perceptions of the CCP are taken into account, the realist argument that differences in regime type and ideology are all but irrelevant to the US–China relationship appears to represent an assessment that is limited at best. As Peter Mattis has argued, a failure to understand and concentrate on the party itself has contributed to misperception and misunderstanding on the part of American policymakers.

Moreover, the CCP’s concepts of security and its priorities are distinctive in ways that increase the likelihood of miscalculation, insofar as concerns of political security appear to have intensified the overall US–China security dilemma even at a time when US policy was notionally oriented towards cooperation. As Samantha Hoffman has noted, the CCP’s notion of state security (国家安全) is uniquely expansive relative to American concepts of national security, including concerns of cultural, political and ideological security. Specifically, according to China’s National Security Law, state/national security involves the capability of the state to ‘maintain its ideological domination’, taking ‘political security as the fundamental’ requirement.

Considering these perceptions, US policies—and even civil-society activities that are seen from an American perspective as either entirely innocuous or under the rubric of a cooperative approach—have apparently reinforced CCP perceptions of US hostile intentions. The discussions about mitigating the US–China security dilemma often neglect to consider the extent to which alleviating CCP concerns about security would require compromises that are incompatible with the nature of American democracy.

In this regard, contrary to Mearsheimer’s contention, it does matter deeply that China is autocratic, because China, as a non-democracy, cares about its security differently from the way democracies do. For instance, employees of NGOs that concentrate on human rights and workers’ rights have been accused of and charged with ‘endangering China’s state security’. Moreover, core aspects of the global order today, including the notion of the universality of certain values and freedoms, pose direct threats to political security from Beijing’s perspective.

Infamously, as ‘Document 9’, a communiqué leaked from the CCP Central Committee’s General Office highlighted, the ‘ideological situation’ is ‘a complicated, intense struggle’. Any effort to promote ‘Western constitutional democracy’ is seen as an attempt to undermine China’s system of governance, while the promulgation of ‘universal values’ is believed to reflect an effort to ‘weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership’.

In response to these threats, the party must ‘conscientiously strengthen its management of the ideological battlefield’. From the CCP’s perspective, ‘Western anti-China forces’ are ‘actively trying to infiltrate China’s ideological sphere’, threatening China with ‘the spearhead of Westernizing, splitting, and “Color Revolutions”.’ So, too, the party sees the internet as a battlefield that could jeopardise the regime’s survival and its prospects for remaining in power for the long term, such that the US commitment to internet freedom is believed to be a direct threat.

Pursuant to this regime security dilemma, American principles inherently exacerbate CCP insecurities, while measures that the CCP has taken to ensure its security and interests have posed new threats to US values and democracy. For instance, CCP attempts to limit the free speech of overseas Chinese students and dissidents, including those living in the US, have also threatened our system of governance.

Increasingly, China’s core interests—often characterised as ‘sovereignty, security, and development interests’—are also starting to involve and require the global expansion of Chinese influence and ‘internationalisation’ of military power. China’s notion of sovereignty has extended to incorporate new domains with the new emphasis on cyber sovereignty (网络主权), which requires control and domination of online discourse within and beyond China.

The US–China relationship is not inherently adversarial, but managing constructive competition will require a clear-eyed recognition of the characteristics of this rivalry.


About the Author

Elsa Kania is a non-resident fellow at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre and an adjunct fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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