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  • China’s Challenge
  • Andrew J. Nathan (bio)

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under President Xi Jinping has begun to flex its muscles as a major power. Setting aside Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of “hide our light and nurture our strength” and Jiang Zemin’s policy of “increase trust, reduce trouble, develop cooperation, and do not seek confrontation,” Beijing today actively challenges its neighbors. It also confronts U.S. interests in the South and East China Seas, builds up its navy and missile forces to oppose a U.S. intervention should an armed clash erupt over Taiwan, and promotes the creation of alternative global institutions such as the “BRICS bank” and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that are designed to exclude U.S. and European influence. There is growing worry among Western analysts about the extent to which China, as its power grows, will seek to remake the world in its authoritarian image.

China expert Michael Pillsbury, for example, argues that if the country’s economy continues to grow at its current pace and hard-liners retain control over Chinese policy, by midcentury China will oppose democratization around the world, control information about China available globally through censorship of the Internet and influence over mass media, and intimidate critics by means of cyberattacks and the withholding of economic favors.1 Retired U.S. general Wesley Clark points out that China “has rejected both the move toward democracy and the acceptance of human and civil rights that Americans had hoped would emerge from China’s astonishing economic rise. . . . China’s foreign policy relies on keenly calculated self-interest, at the expense of the [End Page 156] international institutions, standards and obligations the United States has sought to champion.”2

For the time being, however, China’s strategic situation does not permit an all-out challenge to democracy beyond its shores, and whether it will ever undertake such a challenge is uncertain. China’s foreign policy remains essentially defensive. First, the country’s policy makers are concerned about the fragile security situation at home, caused by dissatisfaction among ethnic minorities, displaced peasants and property owners, disgruntled workers, liberal intellectuals, and others—opponents who, Beijing believes, are incited and supported by hostile foreign forces.3 Second, policy makers have to worry about relations with the two-dozen countries around China’s borders, including powerful states with territorial disputes and other tensions with China, like Japan, Vietnam, and India, as well as countries with a dangerous potential for instability such as North Korea, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Third, China has to worry about regional crises that could break out at any moment in places such as the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. And fourth, it has to worry about access to resources and markets around the world.4

Facing this array of challenges, the Chinese leadership seeks to maintain good relations with whatever regime is in power in any country where China has diplomatic and security interests or does business, regardless of the character of that regime. To be sure, it is often easier for Beijing to do business with narrow authoritarian elites than to navigate within complex democratic systems. But attempting to undermine a foreign democratic regime would, in business terms, cost more than it would be worth. And even if it wanted to, China does not have the economic, military, or soft-power resources to exert substantial influence over the domestic political systems of faraway countries. It has not been able even to prevent a democratic transition in its close neighbor Burma or to persuade its only formal ally, North Korea, to adopt liberalizing economic reforms.

This “regime-type-neutral” approach has not been a permanent feature of Chinese foreign policy. The situation was different in the later years of Mao Zedong’s rule, when China was economically self-sufficient (though poor) and placed priority on undermining Soviet influence wherever it could. Mao declared, “With great turmoil under heaven, the situation is excellent.” Beijing gave material, diplomatic, and propaganda support to pro-China, avowedly Maoist movements in Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Angola, Rhodesia, and South-West Africa, among other places. A famous poster showed Mao surrounded by smiling...