China and the United States are not only strategic rivals, but also adversaries in a second Cold War, competing for global supremacy. In the military realm, China is determined to push American forces away from the western Pacific. The United States, which considers itself a Pacific power, is equally determined not to budge. The world's two largest economies also clash over trade, imposing tariffs on each other to gain an advantage. In the field of high technology, from artificial intelligence to 5G networks, the two countries battle for dominance, seeing the other's success as a threat to their security. Even in manufacturing, Beijing wants to become the global superpower, which would undermine American workers. But what makes this contentious bilateral relationship a true sequel to the American-Soviet rivalry is the ideological dimension.
The Cold War of the 20th century, explains the historian John Lewis Gaddis, was distinct from other cold wars because of its ideological divide. The conflict was, fundamentally, about ideas—in this case communism, and whether it was preferable to Western democracy and pluralism. Today, the ideological divide between China and the United States is similarly stark, playing a central role in the Sino-American rivalry. Beijing's ideology is not just a form of communist authoritarianism mixed with crony capitalism. Under President Xi Jinping, China has developed a personality cult, under which the Communist Party uses the latest technology to control and oppress the Chinese people. Just look at how the Chinese government has imprisoned about one million ethnic Uighur Muslims in concentration camps and tried to erase their culture. Such is the work of a regime that, with its global ambitions, envisions a very different world than the American-led one that has endured since 1945.
China is not simply pursuing strategic interests abroad and stability at home. With its imperial past in mind, the Asian behemoth seeks to dominate East Asia and, eventually, to supplant the United States as the center of power in international affairs. Many Chinese leaders, especially Xi, view themselves as rulers of a superior civilization, deserving of deference. This conflict is most certainly ideological.
A new report by the International Republican Institute shows how Cold War II is beginning to resemble its predecessor around the world, with ideology playing a fundamental role. The report, titled "Chinese Malign Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy," examines how the Chinese Communist Party is employing aggressive tactics to seek nefarious political and economic influence in the developing world. Specifically, IRI uses the research of experts in 12 "vulnerable democracies"—Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Ecuador, Zambia, Mongolia, Hungary, The Gambia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and the Maldives—to study how Beijing "manipulates internal political and information environments to its own benefit."
"China's preference for opaque, corrupt economic deals corrodes democratic institutions and leaves countries increasingly beholden to their Chinese creditors," the report states. "These actions, in conjunction with China's support for likeminded, illiberal partners and growing advocacy for its authoritarian model, have the potential to draw fragile democracies into China's orbit and away from the United States and the democratic West."
Such a development, the report continues, "represents a clear and significant threat to U.S. strategic and economic interests and has the potential to destroy the American-led liberal democratic order."
China is offering the world an alternative, authoritarian model of governance to the American system.
China's activities in the developing world are reminiscent of the Soviet Union's attempts to gain influence over and undermine democracies during the Cold War. Of course the Soviets at times also sent weapons and soldiers and, unlike the Chinese today, fought proxy wars against the Americans. There are important and obvious differences. But the overall idea is quite similar: America's chief adversary is using information and influence to try to gain subservient friends, even puppet governments, to serve their interests in a long-term rivalry against the United States. Over time, one is likely to see the two powers actively competing for influence in developing nations. They may not be arming guerrillas or governments, but they will use all of the other tools of statecraft—including cyber attacks, information warfare, and economic coercion, among others—to undermine each other.
To combat Chinese efforts to corrode democracy in the developing world, where Beijing sees ripe opportunities to expand its economic and political power, the United States should adopt a new form of the Reagan Doctrine. During the 1980s, President Reagan implemented a strategy to support anti-communist forces around the world, providing them covert and overt aid, to roll back, rather than simply contain, Soviet influence and expansionism. The developing world served as the main battleground for this effort.
Today, the United States should adopt a similar strategy against China. The difference is that, rather than provide weapons, Washington would provide vulnerable democracies, or nongovernment entities resisting Chinese encroachment—such as academia, civil society, and trusted media—with other forms of support, offering alternatives to Chinese investment and financing. The United States should expose China's nefarious efforts to exploit a country's weaknesses and entrench itself there. Such activity in the developing world is necessary for China's economy and its quest to become a superpower, both of which are essential for the Communist Party's legitimacy at home.
As the report warns:
Without dedicated leadership from the U.S. and a clear understanding of the nature of the threat posed by China's global influence efforts, we can expect to see a rapid diminution of stable, law-abiding democracies and attendant expansion of China's strategic advantage. By learning from the vulnerabilities and sources of resilience in the countries where China has made (or sought to make) inroads, the U.S. and its partners have the opportunity to build their own sophisticated counter-strategy dedicated to preserving the integrity of democratic institutions and practices that have delivered unprecedented global prosperity and security.
Since 1945, the world has benefited from an American-led global order that, for all of its flaws, has provided unprecedented peace and prosperity to so many. China's vision for the world is much darker, less free, and less prosperous. America's economy and security would suffer most of all. The United States must recognize that Cold War II is upon us and plan accordingly. A good place to start is to outline a new Reagan Doctrine for a new Cold War, to counter China's malicious activities in the developing world.