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New Atlanticist

July 1, 2021

The Free World vs. China and Friends: It’s ideology, stupid

By Kaush Arha

US President Joe Biden’s first overseas tour, comprising the Group of Seven (G7), NATO, and United States-European Union (EU) summits, was a laudable lap of shoring up US allies in the defense of democracy, as they confront the resurgent autocracy of China and its friends Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. The transatlantic alliance, along with the Quad (the United States, India, Japan, and Australia) nations committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, find themselves in an epochal war of ideas between democracy and autocracy. Let’s call it the Free World vs. China and Friends.

Biden deserves credit for the necessary rallying of allies around American and universal values—work that his predecessor appeared constitutionally incapable of doing, notwithstanding the tireless efforts of a few Trump administration Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials. In American football terms, Biden has done well to get the ball to the two-yard line in rousing the Free World to advance the cause of liberty. Now he has to punch the ball into the end zone.

As China celebrates the one hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Biden and his team can sharpen the ideological war pitting freedom and prosperity against political control in exchange for prosperity. The US president should ensure that the transatlantic and Indo-Pacific alliances collaborate and pool resources. The recent G7 Summit, which included the guest nations of India, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa, represents the blueprint for a group of leading democracies joined by shared interests and values across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. It is in the interest of the G7 nations to formalize expanded representation prior to their next summit. The new Group of Ten (G10) should include the existing G7 plus India, Australia, and a more formal role for the European Union. Every G10 summit should invite guests from Africa and Latin America. The new G10 could thus represent the Free World.

Biden needs to make sure that every American and liberty-loving world citizen understands the fundamental ideological debate of our time: whether democracy or autocracy offers the best path forward. The United States is once again on the right side of history. America’s founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness hold universal appeal and have been the engine of unprecedented peace and prosperity. For the Biden administration to mobilize the Free World in common cause to prevent Xi Jinping’s China from remaking the world in its image, it is imperative to lead with a resolute defense of democracy and a forceful critique of totalitarianism.  

Our world once again faces a contest of whether right makes might or might makes right. Nations committed to free societies and free markets are challenged by the totalitarianism and state capitalism of Xi’s China. The Free World will prevail on the strength of its ideas and ideals—not on the size of its industry and military.

The governing dogma of Xi’s China, enshrined in “Xi Jinping Thought,” calls for faith, devotion, and sacrifice to the lofty ideals of communism that “reach higher than the heavens.” It holds that the “trends of the times” inveitably will result in “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to prevail over the liberal capitalist Free World. It states openly that an international order underpinned by liberal ideals is unsuitable to accommodate a Marxist-Leninist China—and therefore should be transformed. The CCP marked the United States as its ideological foe the day a group of brave students raised the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After three decades, the United States is just now warming to the idea.

Confronted by a loud ideological foe, the United States—not to mention its European partners—has uncharacteristically demurred from a direct and forceful ideological contest, instead hailing China as a “strategic competitor” and a “systemic rival.” It often ignores the ideological gauntlet in favor of a functional approach: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March. While Blinken did say that China is the only country that can “seriously challenge the stable and open international system,” US leaders have long hesitated to call out an ideological foe with the conviction and fervor of former President Ronald Reagan calling out the Soviet Union.

For a nation conceived as an idea, the refusal to lead with the force of ideas is not only unbecoming—it is self-defeating. The decision to use functional language divorced from ideology plays to China’s advantage. In the absence of the ideological dimension, there can be no coherent, shared understanding among the United States and the rest of the Free World on how to engage China and Friends. The absence of ideology allowed for the preposterous earlier European claim of being caught in the middle between the United States and China. It enables the United States and Europe to become morally complicit in China’s human-rights abuses, such as forced labor in Xinjiang, by pursuing deals to sell more German cars or American agricultural products to Xi’s China. It prevents Americans from realizing the clear and present danger of China’s support for authoritarianism abroad, its undermining of democracy through disinformation and sharp power, and its increasing influence in international institutions. These actions threaten to reshape the global order in Beijing’s image and render less secure Americans’ way of life.

Shorn of its high ideals, the United States is susceptible to playing into CCP propaganda that the United States is the “aggressor” in China’s backyard while Beijing is only seeking a “path of peaceful development” and “win-win” cooperation toward a “community of shared future for mankind.” Devoid of clear ideological battle lines, US security assurances and concerns in the Indo-Pacific can devolve into two competing powers’ mercantilist ambitions. Engagement with Xi’s China needs to be in the context of competing ideological goals, not compartmentalized in willful ignorance of their reality.

What’s necessary to counter China’s ideological goals is a forceful reaffirmation of Free World values. These are the true stakes of the battle of ideas—not selling cars, grain, or a climate accord to your systemic rival, but the very way of life that the Free World takes for granted.

It is important that this war of ideas be framed as a clash between the founding principles of the US government and the CCP—not their citizens. American and Chinese people have enjoyed a long and rich history of mutual benefit and respect, and that should endure. US ideals and security enabled China’s rise to be its global rival. But the goals of Xi and the CCP do not tolerate—let alone enable—any competition. That is the crux of the ideological war.    

It is in the realm of ideology where China is most brittle and vulnerable—and the United States strongest and most resilient. By its own admission, in fact, the greatest threat to the Chinese Communist Party is ideology. The CCP abhors chaos and does all it can to erase it, while the resilient character of democracy shines in chaos. The democratic institutions of the Free World have been tested fiercely and found resilient. The last US president was impeached twice in one term and voted out of office. And on January 6, in the face of a rowdy mob, US legislators returned to the Capitol in the middle of the night to certify the election. In the battle of ideas, the United States is stronger because it leads by the will of the people against the state coercion of China.  

The best ideological antidote to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is democracies with Asian characteristics. It is the marvel of Indian democracy, the resolve of Taiwan, the strength of Japan and South Korea, the soundness of Australia and New Zealand, and the aspirations of movements and leaders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Central Asia. And an expanded G10 gives new voice to these Asian democracies. There are no greater soldiers of democracy than the brave students of Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong, who were inspired by US ideals. To be worthy of their inspiration and its own founding principles, the United States should stand tall as democracy’s guardian.     

Kaush Arha is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as the senior advisor for strategic engagement at the US Agency for International Development.

Further reading

Image: A woman takes a selfie in front of a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during a celebration marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing on July 1, 2021. Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters.