Ideological Competition in the Indo-Pacific

As the geopolitical competition between China and the United States heats up, most analyses have focused on China’s growing military power, China’s audacious Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across the region and place itself at the center of the region’s geopolitical destiny, the administration’s still-gestating Indo-Pacific strategy, and Washington’s struggles to find an alternative trade strategy following its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet there is another aspect of the broader geopolitical political competition between China and the United States that has received less attention – ideology. Though long dormant in bilateral relations between the two sides, Beijing’s growing geopolitical ambitions – combined with a more competitive approach from Washington – is pushing ideology to the fore of geopolitical competition that has been unseen since the end of the Cold War.

China’s recent 19th Party Congress, and the National People’s Congress that followed, caught a great deal of international attention because of the remarkable expansion of Xi Jingping’s status and personal power and the announcement of a new cadre of leaders for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Yet each event also included significant ideological elements that are also significant geopolitically. In his speech to the assembled Party elite, Xi described his vision for the future of Chinese society under the aegis of “Xi Jinping Thought,” which state media later described as “the latest achievement in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.” In his remarks, Xi called for Party members to “snap back into line” and focus on governance, politics and ideology. He said “Ideology determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops,” and called on China’s writers and artists to produce work that is thought-provoking but also extols “our party, our country, our people and our heroes.”

At home, Xi’s ideological push has meant a re-emphasis on Marxism-Leninism (usually emphasizing the latter) and a reassertion of the Chinese Communist Party into daily life, with an especially heavy dose of nationalism and exhortations of Xi’s greatness added for good measure. Indeed, China’s state media recently produced a documentary – currently the most popular documentary in China’s history – about the greatness of Xi Jinping.

Yet Xi’s ideological push has also taken a place within China’s more ambitious and assertive approach to foreign affairs and has significant geopolitical implications on its own. While the forms of this narrative vary, the broad ideological message from China (here, for example) is that the world is increasingly chaotic and in need of new ideas and new leadership. Chinese state media refers to Western liberal democracy as beset by “crises and chaos,” and that “after several hundred years, the Western model is showing its age. It is high time for profound reflection on the ills of a doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world's ills and solved so few. If Western democracy is not to collapse completely it must be revitalized, reappraised and rebooted.”

Unlike past rhetoric from Beijing, which denied its system as a model for the world because of China’s unique history and status, Chinese official media today openly uphold China’s system as a better model for the world to study and follow. One editorial compared the political systems of the West and China, stating that “Unlike competitive, confrontational Western politics, the CPC and non-Communist parties cooperate with each other, working together for the advancement of socialism and striving to improve the people's standard of living.” Beijing points to the remarkable economic growth and political stability that China has enjoyed under the CCP’s leadership, and offers itself to the world as a model and guide for the world.

Most ominously, Chinese state media at the close of the 19th Party Congress openly declared China’s assent to be an ideological model for the world and a clear competitor with Western liberal democracy:

By the end of 2016, there were 13 countries whose populations exceeded 100 million. Ten of them are developing countries. China's success proves that socialism can prevail and be a path for other developing countries to emulate and achieve modernization. China is now strong enough, willing, and able to contribute more for mankind. The new world order cannot be just dominated by capitalism and the West, and the time will come for a change.

Interestingly, and less commented-upon, has been increasingly ideological statements coming from the administration within the context of geopolitical competition with China. For example, the National Security Strategy describes China (and Russia) as “determined to make economies less free and less fair” and to “repress their societies.” It goes on: “Rival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy. They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners.”

The injection of ideological competition into the broader geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing suggests that the bilateral relationship is growing increasingly adversarial. No longer seen as a struggle between two major powers with conflicting interests and different political systems, ideological competition suggests that something greater may be at stake. This is a dynamic we have not seen since the end of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union viewed one another as locked in an ideological competition for the future of the world.

While ideological competition between Washington and Beijing is unlikely to reach such apocalyptic heights, it will play an increasingly significant feature in their respective efforts to build support across the Indo-Pacific. Beijing will use its burgeoning ideological proselytizing as a tool to reach out to illiberal U.S. allies and partners and attempt to peel them away from Washington’s sway. While the success of these efforts will likely lie more in how Beijing manages traditional concerns of wealth and power, an ideological component to their outreach could make their pitch that much more attractive.

The implications of this competition are significant and should be integrated into U.S. foreign policy making and rhetoric. Upholding the benefits of political and economic liberalism, and identifying the many challenges caused by illiberal systems, has long been a critical facet of American foreign policy (even though we have failed to live up to those ideals ourselves). But past victories over undemocratic forces should not breed complacency – this should be a wakeup call for the United States to reach out to like-minded allies and partners and openly and proudly espouse the benefits of political and economic liberalism. It may be more chaotic than its illiberal alternatives, but the benefits it provides to its people and societies cannot be ignored. This is a powerful tool of international statecraft, and Washington needs to be more proactive in its use.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.