Ideology is back, and it’s critical for understanding AUKUS v China
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
It comes with an eye-watering price tag of $368 billion for Australia, but this week’s headline-grabbing AUKUS security pact should prompt some deeper questions about why our leaders – across the political divide – are so convinced it will be value for money.
It’s out of fashion these days, when assessing global power politics, to focus on ideology. Foreign policy realists will highlight the primacy of “interests” over values. Australia’s national interests, on that calculation, might tilt pragmatically to the commercial realities and towards China, our biggest trading partner.
But understanding the ideological clash between democratic allies and China’s neo-authoritarianism is critical to understanding the motivations of the AUKUS partners, Australia, Britain and the United States.
Clearly, AUKUS – and with it, Australia’s colossal investment in nuclear-powered submarines – demonstrates a commitment to lean even more heavily into the strategic alliance with the US, instead of hedging our bets more evenly between the US and China. Given China’s stated anger at Australia’s historic announcement this week, it is worth reflecting on what this strategic security pact is attempting to accomplish.
I’d argue it’s got a lot to do with ideology – specifically, democracy and its protection. Ideology informs values and values inform interests. We need to appreciate, too, how much ideology drives China’s strategic actions.
“To grasp the Chinese challenge,” as Michael Beckley and Hal Brands write in the Journal of Democracy, “we must grasp its ideological dimensions.”
Post-Trump, US President Joe Biden has made a big show of his administration’s attempts to reinvigorate American democracy. He has also worked to build a coalition of democracies through major security pacts such as AUKUS, but also and the Quad – aligning the US, Japan, India and Australia – and by convening the global Summit for Democracy, a virtual meeting hosted by Washington “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad”.
A renewed focus on democracy in Australia includes the creation of the Democracy Taskforce and the ASIO director-general highlighting foreign-interference threats from China. Consolidating and protecting our democracy is a goal in and of itself, but it has clear implications for how Australia, the US and the UK, along with other democratic allies, respond to China.
China’s “chief ideologue” and most important political theorist is Wang Huning. A high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, Wang was instrumental in developing modern China’s ideological underpinnings, arguing the case for its neo-authoritarianism and against democracy. In the early 1990s, he wrote a book, America Against America. Its dissection of America’s crisis of democracy proved to be highly influential – and now it’s back in heavy circulation.
Wang argues the US, and democracies in general, will ultimately be felled by inequalities, polarisation and liberty running amok. Wang’s argument has captured China’s leadership, and Xi Jinping in particular. China’s perception of democracy’s weakness influences its confidence and its assessment of its prospects of successfully pursuing its strategic interests.
China, under Xi, fiercely believes in and promotes its own system of governance – what it calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but which is basically an authoritarian Marxist-Leninist political system. The CCP promotes this as superior to democracy. It is certainly a system that safeguards its own grip on power. However, China’s commitment to authoritarianism is not relegated to its own domestic governance; it informs how it moves through the world.
China has pursued actions in an attempt to make the world safer for autocracies such as itself to exist, and to blunt the influence, spread and consolidation of democracies. Liberal democratic values form the underpinnings of the current rules-based order, which AUKUS seeks to protect but which constrains China’s ambitions.
In this pursuit, China has often exercised “sharp power”, a term coined to express how authoritarian states project their influence internationally through the undermining, manipulating and distorting of open societies such as democracies. We’ve witnessed its suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and its militarisation of the South China Sea.
It will apply in China’s consideration of whether to invade and attempt to claim Taiwan as its own. It also influences how actively it will challenge the international liberal rules-based order that underpins our own national security.
The AUKUS security pact is a strong signal to China from like-minded democracies that it should think twice. Simplistic efforts to downplay ideological considerations can no longer be sustained. Ideology may be back in fashion.