Dec 10, 2021 - World

Democracy vs. China: Biden's top priorities are sometimes in conflict

Photo illustration of Biden taking down his aviator sunglasses to glare at the stars in the Chinese flag
Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Biden has described the global competition between the U.S. and China as a battle of democracy vs. autocracy. The reality is often murkier.

Why it matters: Addressing his Summit for Democracy on Thursday, Biden called the erosion of democracy around the world “the defining challenge of our time.” But his democracy agenda is beginning to collide with his China strategy in uncomfortable ways.

The big picture: The Biden administration has embraced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a crucial ally in countering China while tiptoeing around his government's human rights violations and democratic backsliding.

  • It’s courting non-democracies like Vietnam and Thailand due to their strategic importance vis-à-vis China.
  • And the administration's efforts to convince the kleptocratic leaders of Equatorial Guinea not to grant China a military foothold, as revealed in the WSJ, underscore the tension between Biden's desire to crack down on corrupt regimes and the need to keep them out of Beijing's orbit.

Reality check: “If we only dealt with perfect democracies, we couldn’t even deal with ourselves,” notes Lisa Curtis, who helped craft the Trump administration’s China strategy and now heads the Indo-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security.

  • Biden has also had some success in syncing up with fellow democracies when it comes to China, particularly on human rights issues.
  • Still, hopes that this week's summit might be a stepping stone toward an "alliance of democracies" may be tempered by the difficulties of determining who exactly would attend it.

This tension between interests and values in America's global partnerships is nothing new.

  • As the U.S. was pitching democracy to the world during the Cold War, some of its more reliable partners were autocrats. Even within NATO, not all of the original allies were democracies, notes Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis. Indeed, the U.S. was building those alliances during the Jim Crow era at home.
  • Gaddis contends that one lesson from the Cold War is that in its relationships with countries like Thailand — which Secretary of State Tony Blinken will visit next week, and where a military junta took power in 2014 — the U.S. priority should be the balance of power in Asia, rather than influencing domestic politics.
  • “You’re going to have to make compromises on principles to get to that point. That’s what strategy is all about,” Gaddis says.

Flashback: Biden aides contend they can do both at once. I asked Blinken's deputy, Wendy Sherman, earlier this year how she squared her outreach to Cambodia and Thailand (which she was visiting at the time) with Biden's democracy agenda.

  • "One has to raise it all,” she said. “If I go to a country in which we have a security relationship, that's important, but it doesn't stop us from raising these human rights issues.”

Zoom in: Curtis points to another country of major importance in the U.S.-China competition, both because of its location just off of India and because of China’s growing investments and influence: Sri Lanka, where the ruling Rajapaksa brothers have been trampling democratic institutions.

  • That's one of many such cases where the U.S. will have to decide whether to court unsavory governments to compete for influence or to keep them at arm's length.
  • “This is an example of how you weigh your policies and try to compete, to remain in the game but at the same time continue to stand up for your principles,” Curtis said.

The bottom line: Biden sees defending democracy and outcompeting China as the central challenges of the 21st century, but they won't always be perfectly aligned.

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