Hornat goes on to say that “like Western-style democracies, a democratic China may repudiate its non-interventionist doctrine and be more assertive in pursuit of its interests.” It’s a mystery what he is talking about here. China as an authoritarian state has been extremely interventionist, from its alliance with the pariah state of North Korea to its ever-more-aggressive territorial claims encroaching on its neighbors. Nevertheless, Hornat continues:
How would the United States react to a Chinese “coalition of the willing”? Democratic or not, China would still depend on a growing amount of natural resources and territorial disputes in the South China Sea would continue to disrupt regional security.
That’s a fair point — China has presided over environmentally damaging economic growth, and there was a lot of populist rage directed against Japan over territorial issues this past summer. But neither of these points persuasively makes the case that Chinese democracy would be worse for American interests than Chinese authoritarianism; at most, they just show that it might be no better.
What does all this add up to? Hornat ends his piece by stating that “Chinese democracy may not bring the effects everyone hopes for.” It’s a weak conclusion, and it obscures his real thesis:
Before accepting a democratic China into the international system, it would behoove Washington to soften its superpower mindset toward Beijing. A democratically governed China would likely still have great power ambitions and Beijing could legitimately claim the role of the “second superpower” in the next decade.
Democratization would upgrade China’s political power and credibility in the international community. The United States and the European Union would forego the leverage of confronting China about its policies, as China’s laws would be the result of a popularly elected government.
That’s a sinister perspective. I gather that Hornat believes the United States might not be able to control events or remain competitive against a democratic China (never mind that we haven’t been able to control an authoritarian China either). Are we to conclude that he’d sacrifice the liberty of millions of people across the Pacific Ocean for America’s national interest?
If so, that’s gruesome realpolitik. It also contradicts Hornat’s insistence that America should subject its national interest to global governance under the United Nations. And even if he were a staunch advocate of the pursuit of American national interests at all costs, he apparently despairs at the prospect of a democratic China pursuing its own national interests.
In the end, Hornat has hardly made a case against Chinese democracy. Instead, he ends up pushing for the worst kind of American exceptionalism.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.