Veteran China watchers have always wondered what kind of foreign policy China would have adopted had the country been a democracy. There are two schools of thought. One, the realist school, insists that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. States pursue power and seek security regardless of the type of political regimes in control. What influences the behavior of states is the amount of power they possess and the external constrains on the use of such power. From this perspective, Chinese behavior is determined by its power, not by its political regime. For example, China’s abandonment of its low-profile foreign policy in favor of a more assertive one in recent years is the result of growing Chinese power, not a change in its domestic political system (which has remained the same).
The other school argues that differences in domestic political regimes are fundamental to understanding state behavior. Democratic states and authoritarian ones view the world from decidedly different lenses – their threat perceptions aren’t the same. The foreign policy decision-making processes are completely different in two systems. Democracies have far greater transparency and openness, in sharp contrast to the opaque and closed nature of decision-making in autocracies. Most importantly, there’s no conflict between regime security and national security in democracies because in such systems the democratic political regime is fundamentally legitimate and accepted by all the key players. Governments may fall due to a lack of public support, but the democratic system always endures. As a result, leaders in democracies don’t have to sacrifice national security in order to ensure regime security.
In contrast, in autocracies, regime security and national security often conflict. Because in such systems the fall of government also means the collapse of the regime, the ruling elites characteristically assign a higher priority to protecting regime security than national security. In other words, regime interests override national interests in autocracies. Moreover, threat perception by autocracies is notable for its political nature. While democracies perceive external threats exclusively in terms of physical security, autocracies see such threats in both political/ideological and military terms. Consequently, autocracies tend to devote costly resources to defending against external political threats and make unnecessary enemies of democracies not because of their military threat, but because of their political threat. So in their pursuit of regime security, autocracies simply can’t avoid undermining the security of the nation, both in terms of wasting national resources and antagonizing major democratic powers they otherwise should befriend.
This perspective may help us better understand the constant tensions between the regime security of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the national security of China. Chinese foreign policy today is frequently torn by these two conflicting objectives. Two examples can serve as illustrations.
China’s policy toward North Korea should be exhibit A of this conflict. Chinese national security interests dictate that China shouldn’t tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or aggressive behavior toward its neighbors. Yet, because the ruling CCP regards a reunified democratic Korea that is a close military ally of the United States as a greater threat to its regime security than a nuclear-armed hereditary dynasty (which is a threat to Chinese national security, but not the CCP regime’s security), Beijing has pursued a policy of keeping the Kim dynasty in power almost at any cost. The price China has paid in terms of diminished national security is exorbitant – an untrustworthy neighbor armed with nuclear weapons, heightened risks of regional war, real danger of being dragged into another conflict on the Korean peninsula, alienation of South Korea as a long-term strategic ally, Japan’s rearmament and antagonism toward China, and increase in American offensive capabilities in the region.