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Foreign Policy

America’s “Battle of Ideas” with China

Apr 25, 2024
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

America’s claim that it is locked in “a battle of ideas” with China has garnered widespread attention. Over the years, Washington has made many statements regarding the nature of its relations with Beijing, with competition being the predominant theme. However, the recent notion that the relationship comes down to “a battle of ideas” sheds light on Washington’s narrow-minded approach to foreign strategy and its dealings with China. The ramifications of this perspective deserve vigilance. 

By propagating its ideology-based theory, Washington is trying to hide its attempt to maintain hegemony on the world stage. Its foreign strategy is based on two pillars: idealism and realism, which form the basis of its discourse as it seeks long-term global dominance. As part of a comprehensive shift in its China strategy, the “battle of ideas” has surfaced repeatedly in speeches by some U.S. politicians, emerging as a concrete expression of the combination of these two factors. 

On the surface, this theory seems to be framed around ideological competition, but in fact it fundamentally revolves around national interests. By propagating the ideology explanation, the United States is attempting to mask its pursuit of its immediate interests and long-term dominance over the international order.

Facing the end of the post-Cold War era, a term often used by Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan and other U.S. officials to describe changes in the international landscape, Washington’s potential loss of hegemony has become a source of strategic anxiety. More members of the international community have recognized that Washington cannot indefinitely reap the benefits of being the leading superpower. But for Washington, maintaining the status quo remains a pivotal consideration in its strategy toward China and the wider world. Indeed, this has emerged as the paramount strategic imperative of the United States in the post-post-Cold War era. Understanding this perspective enables one to comprehend the complex mentality underpinning Washington’s warnings against “a world dominated by China.”

The theory of a battle of ideas also underscores Washington’s pursuit of competition on all fronts with China, including the realm of ideology. It is resorting to all possible means to compete with China, laying bare once again the narrow-mindedness of its strategy. This theory reveals the sense of superiority within the United States regarding its own ideas and its strategic intention to impose those ideas on the world.

In reality, however, such attempts have hit a wall. U.S. strategic initiatives, such as “exporting democracy,” have repeatedly suffered disastrous failures, while its “democracy versus authoritarianism” narrative of recent years and its smear campaigns against China’s ideas on national governance have been met with skepticism in many nations.

In contrast, China stands against framing its relationship with the United States as one of competition. It does not seek to engage in major power rivalry nor aim to replace or challenge any other country. Instead, it is committed to developing China-U.S. relations in line with the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. At the ideological level, it opposes the imposition of any one country’s ideas, systems or development models, let alone the forceful export of  ideological concepts.

At the same time, the narrative of a battle of ideas reflects the huge differences between the two countries regarding competition and ideological stances. Whose views are more meaningful and more conducive to world stability and development? The answer is self-evident.

While recognizing the narrowness of the U.S. strategy, China should be highly vigilant about attempts to steer China-U.S. competition into the realm of ideology. For one thing, this tactic echoes Washington’s approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with the malevolent intention of shaping its adversary into an ideological opponent. Today, its purpose is to portray China as a rival in the eyes of the U.S. public, thus manufacturing social support for long-term strategic competition.

In addition, it aims to sow seeds of division globally and force countries to choose sides — either Beijing or Washington — thereby forming a coalition against China. In this context, the narrative exhibits distinct characteristics of cognitive warfare. It seeks to influence and shape the world’s perceptions of China, the United States and even the international community, so as to serve Washington’s strategic purpose of containing China’s rise.

Moreover, this theory deliberately amplifies the ideological differences between the two countries, which to some extent meets Washington’s need to support its decoupling strategy. In recent years, decoupling efforts in science and technology, people-to-people exchanges and other fields have drawn scrutiny from many parties, prompting a reassessment of related policies.

Under this circumstance, Washington seeks to accentuate national differences and constantly create divisions between “us” and “them,” thus bolstering the case for decoupling from China. Essentially, it aims to imply that decoupling from China is driven not only by the need to maintain its economic and technological security but by irreconcilable differences and the difficulty of aligning their respective ideologies.

In contrast to its approach to handling bilateral relations from the perspectives of competition and zero-sum thinking, the current American endeavor to steer China-U.S. competition into the realm of ideas threatens to cause more harm. 

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