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Not a Cold War But an Ideological Argument

Pundits like George Will think China will be deterred by an aircraft carrier. They misunderstand what Beijing wants.

Perhaps alone among conservatives these days, I don’t hate George Will. That may be because I remember back during the Bush administration when he was among the first on the mainstream right to question the Iraq war. He’s always been like that to a degree, reflexively and sometimes gratuitously contrarian, willing to smirk at his own side’s sacred cows if not quite slaughter them. In an age of tribalism and groupthink, there are worse things.

That’s why Will’s latest column is such a disappointment: It sounds just like what everyone else in Washington is saying. Raising the flag of the “rules-based international order,” Will proceeds to salivate over a recent British naval strike group and joint military exercises between the United States and Japan, which he sees as shows of strength against Russia and especially China. The order of the day, Will thinks, is to counter these two nations because they refuse to be “normal.” “It is, therefore,” he declares, “well to notice how, day by day, in all of the globe’s time zones, civilized nations are, in word and deed, taking small but cumulatively consequential measures that serve deterrence.”

There’s plenty to quarrel with there, starting with that word “normal.” (Which superpower is behaving more normally? The one that seeks influence over its coasts and neighbors? Or the one that drones civilians to death in countries half a world away?) But I want to focus here on Will’s insistence that we need to deter China militarily. Certainly China does have territorial ambitions—in Taiwan, of course, and in Hong Kong—and certainly, too, it commands a vast military (though the capability of its forces is another question).

But to claim that Beijing is going to be put off by few ships plowing through the sea fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Chinese ambitions. It imposes an exclusive lens of power projection onto what has become a very different kind of rivalry.

The most obvious rejoinder to Will is that China is more defined by its economic power than the size of its navy. And that’s very true, as demonstrated by everything from Beijing’s exertion of influence over American corporations to its warping the global trade system to benefit itself. But we also shouldn’t think that what China ultimately seeks is to somehow checkmate the United States economically. America is by far China’s largest trading partner; even nearby Hong Kong comes in at a very distant second. Somebody has to import all those cheap Chinese-made TVs and contract lead poisoning from those manufactured toys. If American consumption takes a hit, it will thus damage China, too, a reality its government is well aware of.

If not economic victory, then, what is it that China wants? Is it international respect? Global domination? The capacity to export Marxism abroad as the Soviet Union once did? Experts disagree. But what no one contests is that first and foremost China seeks its own internal cohesion. That means preserving its governing model, which it calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Americans tend to view Beijing as almost cynically realist, willing to do anything to advance its national interest and expand its own power. But that also intertwines with another reality: the Chinese outlook is deeply ideological. China views itself as embroiled in a kind of clash of civilizations with the West. In 2013, the Chinese government circulated a document that laid this out in stark detail, titled “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” The paper took stock of distinctly ideological threats to the Chinese Communist Party, and found them lurking in “Western Constitutional Democracy,” those who “believe Western freedom, democracy, and human rights are universal and eternal,” “freedom of the press,” and, of course, “neoliberalism.”

Set against all this is the Chinese model, which holds that “the people” (read: Xi Jinping) own the nation, that all economic development is guided by the Party, and that individual rights don’t exist in the face of collective action. Whereas Americans tend to view their federal government as alien, something to be checked and constrained, the Chinese see their regime, no matter how oppressive, as an integrated and organic function of their nation. And that really is to say “the Chinese.” There are dissenters in China, of course, and perhaps a shared sense that the government can clamp down too hard. But generally the Western portrayal of the Chinese people as squirming under an oppressive jackboot is false. Young Chinese in particular are comfortable with their system and optimistic about their future.

What does China want? To preserve this ideologically informed conception of its nationhood and to survive. That means economic growth to ensure their people’s continued buy-in. It means keeping out what they regard as dangerous Western ideas and ensuring cohesion. It means not greasing the skids for opposition by allowing, for example, the commemoration of Tiananmen Square. It means bringing Hong Kong and Taiwan into the fold, yes, as well as subjecting the Uyghurs to horrific reeducation camps. But it also means not inviting any stupid military confrontations that would prove suicidal. It means playing an ideological long game, shoring up its own philosophy while hoping America’s ultimately collapses.

It’s worth asking, then, which is at greater risk right now, China’s socialism or America’s liberalism? Plenty of evidence exists to suggest the latter. The Chinese look across the Pacific and see a political system backsliding into chaos, awash in culture wars and street violence and balkanization, a civilization collapsing under its own contradictions. Chinese media were positively exultant over the Capitol riot, which they compared to demonstrations in Hong Kong and used to question democracy itself. Its leaders have even trumpeted the complaints of American wokesters as proof that our commitment to human rights is a fraud.

The point is that Beijing is not “normal” and never wants to be. It isn’t going to be pressured into being so by a few military exercises next door. If America is worried about China gaining an advantage, it may do them some good to look not just outward but inward.