Liberal democracy (ie. democracy where there are truly competitive elections) is the dominant ideology of government of our time, having seen off monarchy and totalitarianism in both its fascist and communist guises. And if there’s one thing the world’s liberal democracies agree on is that spreading liberal democracy is a good idea, (unless it interferes with other interests, naturally).
A lot of effort goes into trying to democratise other countries, because we feel a moral duty to do so and it’s good for business. Nation building, peace-keeping/building, free trade, multilateralism, conditional aid, cultural and educational exchanges, sanctions, military action, and good old-fashioned diplomacy are all tools that are used by Western countries to try to democratise other countries. The number of democracies continues to grow.
But there’s an elephant in this room, a rather large one: China. China is not a democracy, let alone a liberal one, and its interests are not served by other countries becoming democracies. Democracies are less likely to be willing allies of China and more likely to be critics. More democracy abroad increases agitation for democracy at home. So, China works to prop up non-democratic governments and shield them from democratisation pressure from the West. Fiji, Zimbabwe, Tonga, Samoa, The Solomon Islands, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Burma, and Cuba are all examples of countries that are recieving diplomatic protection, aid, and investment with China meaning they haven’t had to turn to the West, with it’s ‘good governance’ demands, for support. China makes an attractive option for bad governments, it is a powerful ally that gives money and aid free of demands for better governance, all it asks in return is support in international forums and, occasionally, military access.
This makes our democratisation project more difficult. Countries are less willing to listen to us or obey our rules, and if we push too hard they will turn to China. This is increasingly happening in the Pacific Islands, and democratisation is stalling or reversing in several countries. As a contact working on Pacific issues puts it: “strategically, China’s got us fucked”
And there’s not much we can do about it because China is too important to us. It is the engine of the world’s economic growth. If Western countries want to continue to grow, they must trade more with China and that means remaining on good terms with the Chinese Government. Even if the West were to sacrifice warm relations with China for more strident defence of democratisation it would probably do no good. China can out bid the West for the allegiance of target countries in nearly every way, and its power is growing rapidly at the West’s (and particularly, the US’s) expense.
American rightwing thinking and military planning increasingly envisions eventually conflict with China (you didn’t think the US was buying all those F-22s to bomb terrorists did you?) but that just shows the out-datedness and bankruptcy of rightwing thought. There will be no war with China: there is no casus belli, the economic and human costs are too great for modern democracies to countenance, we are too interdependent, and China’s military is too strong.
What to do then, if we want to continue spreading democracy and not see the international stage increasingly dominated by a non-democratic actor? The only option is to build relations with China at every level. As it opens its society more we must engage with the Chinese people through trade, tourism, and growing inter-personal ties. As Chinese people become more exposed to life in democratic countries, the more they are demanding the same freedoms for themselves. We must encourage this process.
The Chinese Government’s actions to stifle freedom and democracy dismay and anger us but turning our backs on China on will do nothing to change things. Instead, we must build bridges with the country that, either way, will have most influence over the shape of the world in coming decades. The cornerstone of a democratic future is a democratic China.