Throughout the Cold War, ideology was a core point of contention between the two superpowers at that time — the United States and the Soviet Union. It was also the catalyst that divided the world into two blocs.
In today’s world, a resurgence of great power competition is again threatening to create an ideological divide. U.S. President Joe Biden recently convened the two-day Summit for Democracy, which brought together governments, private sector leaders and members of civil society from 110 countries. China and Russia were not invited. As an effort to demonstrate, in Biden’s words, that “America is back,” the summit aspired to start a new phase of Beijing-Washington competition centered on ideology, which will probably define the momentum of China-U.S. ties for a long time to come.
Resorting to a full ideological confrontation is the last straw after all efforts by the U.S. to curtail China have been exhausted, short of war. Since the Donald Trump administration, Washington has formulated a barrage of policy measures to counter China’s rise, including the trade war, a looming tech decoupling, judicial bullying, financial sanctions and military action. But its whole-of-government approach has proved ineffective. What’s more, it has triggered countermeasures by China.
With America debilitated by the ongoing pandemic, its elites are pressing to reemploy the tricks used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War — this time to launch a deadly strike against China. The Summit for Democracy, which brought U.S. allies together, was undoubtedly a part of that effort. As the global financial crisis, political extremism and radicalism have added to the number of conundrums blighting the U.S. over the past decade the country’s persuasive power has been crippled. The myth of American democracy is collapsing.
As bilateral tensions continue in a seesaw of power, an ideological face-off is likely to dominate Beijing-Washington relations in the next decade or two. Amid a downward-spiraling relationship over the years, both sides have figured out their own bottom lines and coping strategies. For now, both are trying their best not to go to war.
A complete decoupling between the world’s two largest economies is next to impossible. They are close-knit in global trade despite Biden’s embrace of Trump’s China trade policy. Financial sanctions cost both sides too much. A technology decoupling looms but it could be constrained to a few key technologies. It seems that China and the U.S. will continue competing in these areas, but within a constrained scope, one in which rivalry won’t deal a crushing blow to bilateral ties.
Only in the realm of ideology is the confrontation between the two countries likely to become more prominent. The Summit for Democracy is no one-off event; more maneuvers can be expected.
Responding to the summit, China released a white paper — China: Democracy that Works — which details the country’s whole-process people’s democracy. Another report, The State of Democracy in the United States, reveals America’s deficiencies and loopholes in its democratic system. These moves demonstrated China’s determination to confront the U.S. as the latter’s behavior becomes more blatant; hence the inevitability of more fierce ideological confrontation.
As ideology becomes a new focus area, how to properly manage the confrontation poses a grave challenge. On one hand, an ideological confrontation, which at the moment consists mainly of words, risks spilling over into other fields. For example, when the U.S. links its “democratic” ideology to the Taiwan question and other issues touching China’s sovereignty, tensions may quickly spiral out of control. On the other hand, an ideological confrontation will probably reshape the existing global landscape and consequently create ideology-based blocs, as in the Cold War.
The U.S. is seeking to counter China’s rise and isolate the Asian powerhouse by roping in its Western allies with so-called democracy. Obviously, this spillover of ideological competition can be destructive, and whether the two countries can coexist in stiff competition without catastrophe is at the top of the agenda.
Committed to its domestic development, China has no intention of setting off an ideological confrontation; neither will it export its own democratic values to other countries, as the U.S. has long worked to do. The U.S. should learn the bitter lessons from history and cautiously use ideology as a tool to gain global supremacy.