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Will Democracy Survive the Rise of China?

The US is becoming increasingly isolationist as it gradually withdraws from conflicts around the world. With the withdrawal of the US and decline of democratic ideals, China is swooping in to secure the role of global hegemon.
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US China

Flags of China and United States of America and papers for signing international agreement. Close up of small flagpoles with flags of two states on long white conference table without people. © Studio Romantic / shutterstock.com

May 17, 2023 22:14 EDT
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These days, China is trying to play the role of the global peacemaker. However, China’s terrible record of human rights and democracy since the 1949 Communist Revolution forebodes the emergence of this leviathan on the world stage.

With Beijing acting more assertively as an international actor and challenging the US-centered world order, questions arise as to what might happen if China becomes the global hegemon and whether democracy will survive worldwide when that happens.

Some experts refer to the 21st century as the “Chinese Century,” because Beijing has shown the material potential, strategic patience and determination to become a hegemon. China has subtleties that its closest allies, namely Iran and Russia, lack. Without firing a shot or starting a war so far, China has projected its power on the world stage through diplomacy, economy and technology, albeit with a lot of political arm-twisting, military muscle, infiltration and espionage behind that conventional façade.

More recently, China has raised its profile by grafting itself into peacemaking efforts within several longstanding conflicts across the globe. Beijing has sponsored a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, and is doing a great deal to resolve the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran over the civil war in Yemen. China’s successes in peacemaking deal a blow to the prestige of the US and the United Nations (UN), whose joint efforts to put an end to the decade-long bloody conflict have proved fruitless so far.

In the absence of a strong American presence in the region, more neutral or Western-friendly nations are likely to lean towards China for security. Since the stability of the Middle East is aligned with the newfound interests of Beijing, we can expect that the China-centered emerging order will calm the turbulent waters in the Arab-Iranian theater of conflict for a while, of course with the obvious exclusion of Israel.

China’s Role in the Russia-Ukraine War

After the end of World War II, the Middle East was primarily an American sphere of influence. However, since the end of the Cold War, the US has been gradually withdrawing from the region. For many in Washington, the Middle East simply does not have the strategic value that it did during the Cold War. That’s why the US has been trying to pivot to Asia to counter the rise of China in the Far East. Ironically, Beijing looks eager to fill the “vacuum of superpower” in the Middle East.

China has also been trying to broker a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia. So far, Beijing has only been paying lip service to peace. For example, while claiming to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow, China has reportedly been providing Moscow with arms, drones, and economic aid. But if it perceives that playing the role of the peacemaker in the European theater of war will further raise its global profile, China might act accordingly. Especially if the West backs off from the Russia-Ukraine war, as evidence suggests, China’s role as a global peacemaker could further grow.

The peace that Beijing establishes between Russia and Ukraine will naturally be in Moscow’s favor, but it might not be so unfair as to kill any incentive for Kyiv to come to the table. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now relying heavily on Chinese President Xi Jinping. Therefore, Beijing can demand concessions for Ukraine that the Kremlin cannot ignore. It should be noted that China’s intentions here go far beyond appeasing Russia, its long-time ally. Beijing is keen on presenting itself as a fair and reasonable superpower that the West and the rest of the world can trust as the new sheriff in town.

As for a head-on confrontation with America, China is currently trying to avoid that, for the US is the world’s leading military and economic power and still holds a significant edge over China. Currently, the US and China are engaged in a new Cold War, while discussions over Taiwan are also intensifying between the two global superpowers. But, this will not necessarily lead to a military conflict. However, as America’s global engagement continues to dwindle, things might take a different turn in the future.

The Erosion of Democracy

Judging by what we see today, democracy is at risk of deteriorating worldwide. In today’s  world, authoritarian regimes are willing to invest heavily in their ideological and material war on democracy. On the other hand, democratic countries generally refrain from standing up for their values, and instead resort to the myopic and short-term logic of “cost-benefit” to avoid an imminent conflict. As a result, democratic countries are leaving much less of an assertive mark on global events. If this continues, democracy is bound to decline.

So far, China has restrained itself from explicitly interfering in the internal affairs of the countries under its influence. However, there is no guarantee that China will stick to that policy once it has achieved global hegemony. Indeed, it will likely try to cast its satellite states in the same mold. This can already be seen in Iran, which is already aligned with China. But Beijing will likely try to do the same in many South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and South American countries as well.

The rise of China and its allies on the world stage is also partly predicated on some of the internal workings of the West. Far-right, populist politics have already contributed to the erosion of democracy in the West. An increase in right-wing, isolationist tendencies in the US and the EU is likely to lead to a power vacuum around the globe that China will race to fill. 

Right-wing politicians in the West tend to adopt a conciliatory approach to dictators around the world. This is due to their strong bias in favor of local and national concerns over global matters. As a result, they tend to de-prioritize human rights and democracy elsewhere. As such, the West, both in its conservative and progressive manifestations, is becoming less interventionist and more isolationist with each passing day.

The prospect of an inexorable onslaught of authoritarianism against an entrenched and confused West does not bode well for the future of democracy worldwide. However, the West cannot continue on this regressive trajectory forever. When it becomes apparent that the existential threat of authoritarianism is inescapable, a paradigm shift is likely to occur. This will lead to a recalibration of forces towards an all-out confrontation with China and its allies.

There is also a growing demand for democracy among the oppressed people living under the yoke of despotic regimes. Many people in China, Russia and Iran are now seeking freedom and democracy. The same is true for people living under Chinese and Russian influence in places such as Hong Kong, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The West must organize all-out efforts to counter despots. When these efforts coalesce with the resistance and inevitable revolt of the oppressed against their oppressors, then and only then will it be possible for liberalism and democracy to emerge victorious worldwide.

[Hannah Gage edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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