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The Clash of Systems?

In Europe this week, on his first overseas trip since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has framed the current moment in world politics as an existential choice between democracy and autocracy, a fundamental decision that, as he put it in a speech in Pittsburgh on March 31, is “what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about.” China’s economic success and political durability have indeed demonstrated that development does not require democratization. And as China grows more influential, it may “ultimately present a stronger ideological challenge than the Soviet Union did,” as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan noted in these pages in 2019.

The Biden administration is correct to emphasize the challenges facing democracy around the world, but the more immediate threat to the United States and other democracies lies within, not without. At present, the dangers of conceiving of U.S.-Chinese competition as a global contest between democratic and autocratic systems outweigh the benefits. Domestically, invoking competition with China may seem like an attractive way to build bipartisan support for long-overdue investments at home. But such appeals are unlikely to sway Republican members of Congress and may validate their efforts to cast China as a greater threat to U.S. democracy than Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election and restrict future voting. No matter how carefully the administration differentiates between the Chinese government and people of Chinese ethnicity, this good-versus-evil rhetoric creates a permissive environment for xenophobia, anti-Asian racism, and violence against anyone perceived as foreign.

The U.S. government should resist the temptation to mirror the ideological insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Casting U.S.-Chinese competition as a contest between systems overstates China’s ideological appeal and undermines Washington’s ability to engage productively with a wide range of governments in Asia and beyond. Simultaneously defending American values and achieving a peaceful—if competitive—coexistence with China requires a more pragmatic approach.


Over the past year, as the United States has been wracked by political turmoil and one of the world’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, China’s leaders have redoubled their efforts to project strength. Yet beneath Chinese propaganda lies political insecurity and fears of ideological bankruptcy. During the final decades of the twentieth century, as other communist regimes collapsed, the CCP embraced capitalism and tolerated rampant inequality as the price of rapid growth, creating a widening gulf between its founding ideals and its current practices that has exposed it to charges of hypocrisy. The CCP sees itself as locked in an ideological struggle to defend its domestic legitimacy and ward off the threat of democratization. So far at least, its ideological aspirations have been more nationalistic than universalistic, even as its efforts to quell criticism have gone global. These efforts have had a corrosive effect on free speech but do not amount to an existential threat to liberal democracy.

The true sources of China’s foreign policy influence are transactional and coercive, not ideological. In Southeast Asia, for example, Beijing’s behavior reveals no favoritism toward regimes with similar ideological foundations. Like China, Vietnam is ruled by a single-party authoritarian regime, officially communist in orientation but having opened up and undertaken a significant process of economic reform since the 1980s. And yet Vietnam has consistently opposed Chinese activities in the South China Sea, forged its own reform path under single-party rule, and built its own…

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