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.
China’s policy toward the United States is another example. A question few have asked about Sino-American relations is whether the U.S. is a threat to China or to the CCP. While there’s no question that competition for power will always be an element of Sino-American relations regardless of the nature of the Chinese regime, it’s also undeniable that such competition will be relatively benign and unlikely to lead to great power conflict had China been a democracy.
But since China is not a democracy, geopolitical rivalry is overlaid with intense ideological antagonism. From the perspective of the CCP, the United States, with its liberal democratic missionary spirit, isn’t simply a military superpower, but an existential political threat. Such threat perception has made mutual trust impossible and precluded many measures that would have enhanced Chinese national security (such as closer military-to-military relations and rules preventing incidents at sea or enhancing cyber-security). Most tellingly, today’s CCP seems to have a stronger distrust of the U.S. than the Soviet Communist Party. According to a former senior director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader, the Soviet Union had a more developed and productive military-to-military relationship with the U.S. during the détente period of the Cold War than China does now.
Inevitably, the measures taken by the CCP to defend its regime security in the face of American power and influence lead to outcomes that undermine China’s national security, as Washington responds with a policy of strategic hedging and, most recently, a pivot toward East Asia. With the subsequent build-up of American forward deployment in the Western Pacific, strengthening of American security alliances in East Asia, and the establishment of new security relations with China’s traditional rivals such as India and Vietnam, one would have a hard time arguing that China’s national security has increased.
Unfortunately, the dominance of regime security over national security in autocracies is a permanent feature of international politics. What makes the Chinese situation unique – and more dangerous – today is that the stakes involved are far greater. If poorly managed, the pathological tensions between regime security and national security in Chinese foreign policy could doom the CCP’s self-proclaimed goal of “peaceful development.”