The question whether a democratized China would be a more peaceful great power has been raised before. In the current issue of The National Interest, professor Aaron Friedberg’s essay discusses this question so exhaustively that there is very little to add. However, an analysis of how domestic politics would change in China if it became a democracy reveals why a Beijing ruled by the people would not be a threat to its neighbors or the West.
One of the most important changes democratization would bring to China is a new civil-military relationship. This issue has not received adequate attention in discussions about how civilian control of the military influences a country’s external behavior. In the case of China, it is a critical factor. As we all know, at the moment, the Chinese military is under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is not a national army, which would be politically neutral and loyal to the Chinese state not to a particular political party. The mission statement of the People’s Liberation Army is revealing: its top priority is to defend the political monopoly of the CCP. Understandably, the CCP has made it abundantly clear that it will not allow the military to become a national army. If China became democratic, the Chinese armed forces would be much less subject to political manipulation and more loyal to national interests. This fundamental change alone would reduce the likelihood of conflict between China and its neighbors.
A democratic China would also have real political checks and balances. Opposition parties and civil society in a liberal democracy play an important part in constraining the freedom of action of the ruling party in national-security policy. At the moment, the CCP’s national-security policy is completely unchallenged. But that would change if China had well-organized opposition parties and strong nongovernmental organizations that could force the leadership to justify and seek public support for its agenda.
The military establishment itself would be placed under greater scrutiny in a competitive political system as well. Opposition parties and NGOs would raise questions about defense expenditures and force the military to be more transparent regarding its doctrine and capabilities.
Democratic institutions would also make the national-security-policy-making process more open and accessible to different interest groups. As a result, advocates for peace and cooperation would have the ability to rally public opinion and influence policy. Taken together, these institutional checks and balances would make the ruling party and the military more accountable.
No doubt, democratization in China would bring an enormous expansion of press freedoms and would fundamentally change the political dynamics of public discourse on national-security issues. At the moment, the lack of freedom of the press makes it very difficult for the Chinese public to gain a well-informed view of issues critical to the country’s national security. Take the Taiwan question, for example. The mainland’s official press coverage of Taiwan is so distorted that it is impossible for ordinary Chinese people to have a decent understanding of the history of the matter, its complexity and the risks of a military conflict. If China were a liberal democracy, press freedom would allow far more open and objective discussion of foreign-policy issues. Hawkish views would be countered by more moderate voices. Nationalist sentiments would be constrained by more cosmopolitan perspectives. And dangers of an aggressive foreign policy would be readily apparent.
The only caveat about the prospect of a more peaceful democratic China is that the process of democratization within the country could be violent. The research on the connection between democratization and war shows that transitions to democracy are likely to lead to conflict. In the Chinese case, such risks are highest in two ethnic-minority areas, Tibet and Xinjiang. Depending on the transition scenario, a collapse of CCP rule inside China could very likely inspire the hard-core secessionists in these two restive regions to declare independence. Under this scenario, Taiwan could follow suit. Such developments are almost certain to elicit a military response from Beijing, regardless of whether the democrats or the autocrats are in power.
However, should China’s democratic transition unfold in a gradual, managed and peaceful way, these nightmarish scenarios may be avoided. Such a transition is more likely if the CCP takes the initiative to start the democratization process from a position of strength. Unfortunately, at the moment the CCP shows no sign of doing so. That means Washington can do little besides wait to see whether history will vindicate the application of the democratic-peace theory in the Chinese case.