With a nod to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when it comes to China the central neoconservative truth is that the regime matters most. The central realist truth is that we have limited capacity to change the regime.
The Sino-American competition is not about whether "state capitalism" (whatever that means) will beat out "democratic capitalism." China does not have an exportable economic and political model. No one is rushing to the streets in the Arab world or elsewhere to push their governments to adopt the "Beijing Consensus." Arabs (and others) want representative government, not tyranny. The Chinese people themselves are not fond of the Chinese model. The uptick in daily protests in China against corruption and injustice speaks for itself.
The Sino-American competition is also not really about the "structure of the international system." Yes, there is historical evidence that rising powers tend to challenge the reigning power for hegemony. But sometimes they do not (see India, the European Union, and Japan circa 1990). The current international system made and maintained by the United States has plenty of room for China to succeed.
Instead, we are in a security competition because the Chinese Communist Party has made it so. The CCP is trying to make the world safe for its continued rule. This desiderata is very difficult in a liberal international order dominated by the United States. The CCP has to beat back attempts by its people to push for democracy. And, because the CCP has made the restoration of a Sinosphere in Asia synonymous with its own legitimacy, the Party must "reunify Taiwan," pacify Xinjiang and Tibet, keep Japan down, and make sure any other pretenders to the throne in Asia (India, Vietnam) are put in their place. Washington cannot be trusted to simply go along with any of these projects. So China must extend its military ambitions. If Washington seeks to undermine China's plans, than it is also imprudent for Beijing to rely on the U.S. Navy to secure its energy supply lines. So Beijing has decided it needs a military that can coerce Taiwan, push around its neighbors, and thwart American attempts to help its allies and protect its long sea lanes. That is why we are in a security competition with China. Beijing has decided upon a set of goals that are rather uncongenial to our own vision of peace and security.
If China was ruled by a regime whose legitimacy rested on the consent of the governed, perhaps it would not see the need to build a big military to: 1) protect itself from its own people; 2) beat back American "containment; or 3) to embark on revanchist projects. If China had a different sort of regime, I submit, we would not be in a security competition with China.
But, there is little the United States can do to affect democratic change in China. We can do more at the margins (e.g. try harder to speak directly to the many reformers in China -- the entrepreneurs, the Christian leaders, the social activists). But in the end this is only moral support. Whether or not as a policy matter our moral support matters for change in China, we have and always should stand with the Chinese people.
Until China changes we are left with the fundamentally realist project of protecting ourselves and our interests by maintaining a strong military presence in Asia and building up our alliances. For now, the central realist truth carries the day. We must engage with China when it is in our interests to do so. But our most urgent task is to successfully play balance of power politics in Asia until a new regime emerges in China that is more accepting of the international order and less afraid of its own people.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.