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Means vs Ends: The Relevance of Ideology in U.S.-China Relations

Sep 07, 2021
  • Bunthorn Sok

    Lecturer of International Studies at RUPP and Economic Diplomacy at ERA/RSA, Cambodia

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In 2018, US President Donald Trump declared that the US had erred in backing China’s accession into the World Trade Organization in 2001. He was convicted that such political establishment had been lulled by China’s still juvenile economic situation in the late 1980s, and that American politicians failed to grasp that supporting China’s candidacy would create a political and economic risk to the US’ global hegemony. China’s “keeping a low profile” (KLP) approach from 1990s to early 2000s, hence, had enabled the country to accumulate power unchallengedly. However, China’s surprising annual economic growth rate, from 8.3% in 2001 to 14.2% in 2007, started raising questions on the US’ exceptional power over the world order.

Though China would not abandon its KLP strategy, as emphasized by the Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo in 2010, the country’s economic ambitions and recurring maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in 2009 disrupted the US’ comfort. In 2010, the US responded by swiftly crafting a “rebalancing strategy,” expressly against China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Studies on China’s rise thus proliferated, so did the questions regarding the two countries’ approaches to development.

One result, based on Deng Xiaoping’s “black cat, white cat” style rooted in China’s political philosophy, was an increasing number of Asian “strongman” leaders who exploited this philosophy to shape their leadership models. This instigated debates on China-centric and US-centric models of leadership, especially on the means and ends of statehood.

For instance, Thailand following the junta’s coup d’état in 2014 stated that the “American one-size shirt does not fit all,” despite it being one of the closest US allies in Asia. Similarly, in the drug-war campaign in 2016, the Philippines’ government of Rodrigo Duterte dismissed the US concerns about rights abuses, suggesting that the Philippines would take a different approach to social order. Lauding the Chinese model too highly at the expense of US democratic and human rights roles – or vice versa – is a huge mistake when contexts are taken into account. That is how the narratives on the “means and ends” in governance evolved into debates between the Oriental and the Occidental.

German philosopher G.W.F Hegel (1770–1831) famously saw the rights and values embedded in liberal democracy as an end since they satisfy human beings’ desire for recognition of their status and dignity. The 19th-century German political philosopher Karl Marx challenged that belief by claiming that liberal democracies often failed to solve social contradictions, that is—class conflict. Simply put, Marx socialism— whereby a society shall accord benefits to human beings of all classes, not just a few, —is an effective means of governance to promote the end of a just and stable nation for all. This traditional theoretical contradiction reflects the lack of political cohesion between Beijing’s more centralized socialism and Washington’s capitalist democracy. While the US defends liberal democracy as an end for all humankind, China views democracy and socialism together as a means toward an inclusive prosperity.

However, the gap of these two doctrines between the means and the end pars shall be perceived from two lenses: pragmatism and recognition (acceptance).

For pragmatism, democracy, so does communism, consists not of guidelines, but values. Positioning democracy as an end for governance cannot be justified simply by referencing the value of respect for human rights and free and fair elections at the expense of basic economic rights. Non-Westerners, for instance, have often alleged that while Western military interventions may halt certain human rights violations and fulfill Western interests, other catastrophes, such as famine, are not well addressed. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 is an obvious example. This utopian dream of a free world is at odds with the standard human demands – as put forward in American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – where physiological desire for foods, water, oxygen, and other bodily substances comes first.

Similar implications are relevant for centralized Communism. Though deemed justifiable for the social order, rights suppression in any form cannot be an end in itself, since it denies the self-esteem and self-actualization needs that top the Maslow’s pyramid. China thus manages to advance positivism in its regime by leveraging its hybrid economic system which values global integration and multilateralism, as witnessed through its lead in the BRI, RCEP, and more.

Second, the recognition dimension also matters. The “declarative theory” of the state was crafted through Europe’s Westphalian Peace Treaty in 1648 and then further advanced by the Americas’ Montevideo Convention in 1933. Later in the 20th century, however, the “constitutive theory” brought debates on statehood to another level, by adding recognition by other states as a prerequisite for a state to have legal personality.

The same applies to the justification of centralized communism and liberal democracy. The US might declare its style of democracy as the most flawless system for modern humankind and China likewise might declare its style of socialism as the best means in the context of developing itself and responding to periods of global disorder.

Yet, under the modern “constitutive theory”, their relevance depends on how many other countries recognize their systems. The respect for human rights embedded in liberal democracy might be ideal for advanced economies like the US and the EU. However, needs are not static, but dynamic and contextualized by realities of local conditions. The perceptions and desires of developed economies are based on values and choice, while those of developing countries are about safety and necessity. Any attempt to make over 150 developing countries embrace liberal democracy or centralized communism is laterally unrealistic. Different states own different local conditions, cultures and histories; thus, their struggles for a prosperous end will also vary.

Even in developed nations, liberal democracy is often questioned during hard times. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has forced the governments almost everywhere to impose strict social measures that restrict liberal rights. Such rights-restrictive measures have been imposed by liberal states in the West, including Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy. This is not to say that the leadership model of centralized communism is being applauded, but that a conviction that one ideology is better than another in all contexts is not logical. Judging the merits of a type of political regime becomes less urgent than executing plans for human survival and economic recovery.

This clearly shows that neither political value is an end, but merely a means to achieve an end that changes over time according to local conditions and levels of development. The gap between the means and the ends of US-led democracy and China-led socialism therefore rests not on their ability to propagandize or indoctrinate, but on how pragmatic and well-recognized they are in a world of unchanged changes.

(Excerpts from an article in TI Observer August Issue)

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