I agree, although according to the Friedberg article we both cited, the manner in which China has pursued (and to some extent defined) its interests in the South China Sea is an expression of its ideology. I’m not sure about this – partly because I’m not intimately familiar with pre-Communist Chinese history and strategic policy, and partly because this same argument was trotted out about the Soviet Union and Russia and hasn’t held up all that well. (Even a “democratic” Russia under Yeltsin complained vociferously about NATO expansion in the 1990s and attempted to exert influence over her neighbors – it was just too economically weak and internally disordered to be effective.)
Bottom line: I think that between China’s actions and Washington’s ideological commitments, there is ample cause to believe that a Cold War-style standoff is imminent, if not already underway.
If such a standoff is imminent or underway, it could be avoided or stopped. Beijing’s policy is an expression of the Chinese government’s understanding of China as the leading East Asian nation, but this is not connected to regime type. At one point, Friedberg seems to acknowledge as much:
It is a nation with a long and proud past as the leading center of East Asian civilization and a more recent and less glorious experience of domination and humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. As a number of historians have recently pointed out, China is not so much “rising” as it is returning to the position of regional preeminence that it once held and which its leaders and many of its people still regard as natural and appropriate.
Greg’s comparison with the USSR is a good one. The importance of communist ideology as the principal driving force in Soviet foreign policy was always vastly overestimated, and consequently there was a mistaken expectation that a post-Soviet Russian foreign policy, especially under an ostensibly democratic government, would be dramatically different. When Russia became more assertive in the last ten years, many Westerners didn’t know how to understand it except to label it neo-Soviet or something else equally silly, when it was the same pursuit of traditional Russian foreign policy along its borders that Russia had pursued long before the Bolsheviks. A more pluralist and liberal democratic Russia would not be very different from today’s authoritarian Russia in how it relates to the “near abroad.”
However, Friedberg remains convinced that the different types of regime and ideology are important factors in creating greater tensions than would otherwise exist. On the American side, he notes:
In fact, because ideology inclines the United States to be more suspicious and hostile toward China than it would be for strategic reasons alone, it also tends to reinforce Washington’s willingness to help other democracies that feel threatened by Chinese power, even if this is not what a pure realpolitik calculation of its interests might seem to demand.
Friedberg then make much bolder claims later on:
It may well be that any rising power in Beijing’s geopolitical position would seek substantial influence in its own immediate neighborhood. It may also be true that, in light of its history, and regardless of how it is ruled, China will be especially concerned with asserting itself and being acknowledged by its neighbors as the first among equals. But it is the character of the nation’s domestic political system that will ultimately be decisive in determining precisely how it defines its external objectives and how it goes about pursuing them.
A strong liberal-democratic China would certainly seek a leading role in its region and perhaps an effective veto over developments that it saw as inimical to its interests. But it would also be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of democratic neighbors, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others.
I have no idea why Friedberg believes the last sentence. A liberal democratic China, and especially a strong liberal democratic China, would perceive its neighbors as traditional enemies or clients. They would not be seen as sources of ideological contamination in terms of dissenting political ideas, but perhaps instead seen as targets or scapegoats. Chinese democratic nationalists would be no less interested in projecting power than their counterparts in other new democracies. A liberal democratic China might be free of certain kinds of internal instability, but especially in its early phase it would be no less prone to domestic unrest, violence, and protest. Its early political stability might be much worse. A democratic government can foment a crisis to distract attention from its domestic failings just as well as an authoritarian one. Democratic governments may resort to foreign adventurism not because they believe their system needs validation, but because they are inspired by their political principles to expand, to “liberate” others, and to intervene against China’s remaining authoritarian neighbors in support of opposition movements. Once it can no longer be portrayed as a repressive authoritarian menace, China may be less constrained in its dealings with neighbors. Friedberg grants as much later in his article:
Beijing has sought at times to stir up patriotic sentiment, but, fearful that anger at foreigners could all too easily be turned against the party, the regime has also gone to great lengths to keep popular passions in check. A democratically elected government might be far less inhibited.
Friedberg simply has far too much confidence in the pacifying effects of liberal democratic institutions, and he appears to have too little confidence that the U.S. could come to live with an authoritarian China as “the dominant power in East Asia.” One thing Friedberg does not address anywhere in his article is why the U.S. should be engaged in a struggle for mastery in Asia in the first place.
If Chinese pursuit of regional preeminence is not in itself an impediment to a stable, cooperative relationship with the U.S., the nature of the Chinese regime and the would-be ideological struggle ought to be irrelevant. A non-authoritarian Chinese government would define and pursue Chinese interests in essentially the same way. Ideology is creating problems for the U.S. that America doesn’t need to have, and it is generating tensions with China that are unnecessary. On the question of what Chinese ideology is and how it affects Chinese policy, Andrew Nathan’s response to Friedberg is worth citing again. Nathan writes:
Democratic rulers in Beijing would still want to preserve control over Tibet and Xinjiang and assert Chinese authority over Taiwan because these territories have fundamental strategic importance for the defense of China. A democratic leadership would also want to press its claims to valuable strategic and economic assets in the East China and South China Seas; build up its navy so that it can participate in the defense of the sea-lanes that are crucial to the country’s prosperity; project influence in crucial neighboring regions like Central Asia, Korea and Southeast Asia; maintain the military capability to deter attacks; exercise influence in the far-flung territories where it acquires resources and sells goods; and in general, pursue much the same national-security agenda as the authoritarian regime follows today. Indeed, as Friedberg points out, a democratic China may be in some respects even a little harder to deal with than the current regime because of its responsiveness to public opinion, which is likely to be nationalistic.
Democratization doesn’t eliminate conflicts of interest between nations, and it doesn’t redefine fundamental national interests. There is not much reason to expect easier or more stable relations with another state once it has become a democracy. We should also know from experience that the “open and politically meaningful debate and real competition over national goals and the allocation of national resources” that Friedberg mentions as one of the virtues of a democratic system is not as influential on the shaping of a democratic state’s foreign policy as he suggests.
Friedberg also wrote:
Aspiring leaders and opinion makers preoccupied with prestige, honor, power and score settling will have to compete with others who emphasize the virtues of international stability, cooperation, reconciliation and the promotion of social welfare.
We know who wins such contests in a strongly nationalist political climate, and it isn’t the latter.