Regime change is not an option in China


The relationship between China and the United States is the central drama of world politics today. It captures and defines the current era: great power rivalry, ideological competition, the spread of advanced technology, and the weakening of American hegemony. Dealing with China is shaping up to be a far greater challenge for American policymakers than competition with the Soviet Union ever was. Not only is Beijing more capable than Moscow at the height of the Cold War, but China’s sprawling economic footprint makes it a much more difficult rival. A highly segregated global economy allowed the United States to contain the Soviet Union, but China is today the largest trading partner of more than 100 countries, many of which have close ties to the United States.

This confusing combination of intensifying competition and growing interdependence has sparked an in-depth conversation in the United States about how to approach China. The debate has taken a dangerous turn in recent years. Starting in 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, among others, began to talk about pressuring the Chinese Communist Party in a way that many interpreted as a call. to a change of regime. Pompeo, denouncing Beijing’s “new tyranny”, memorably said, “If the free world doesn’t change, Communist China will surely change us. Distinguishing between the Chinese people and their regime, Pottinger urged the former to “realize a citizen-centered government in China” as an antidote to the CCP.

This rhetoric is rooted in a school of thought which maintains that the characteristics of a regime, rather than the country’s national interests or its position within the international system, determine the behavior of the state. Reflecting this perspective, Zack Cooper and Hal Brands recently argued in Foreign Policy that because “the acute Sino-American antagonism will persist as long as a powerful China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party,” policymakers will ultimately make changes in the Chinese power or in the way China is governed.

Such arguments resonate across the American political spectrum. President Joe Biden’s team has kept ideology at the center of its evolving Chinese strategy, highlighting Beijing’s draconian crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The Biden administration came to a halt long before pursuing regime change as an explicit goal, but the president’s description of a “battle between the usefulness of democracies.” . . and autocracies ”reflects an acceptance of some measure of ideological struggle.

Although ideological competition may be inevitable, targeting the CCP is not only a highly impractical but also a dangerous strategy. Any attempt at regime change would likely fail and impose long-term costs on US efforts to shape Chinese behavior. Few American allies and partners would support the weakening of the Chinese party-state, possibly blunting the most important tool in Washington’s strategic arsenal. Such an approach would isolate the United States and intensify its already deep rivalry with Beijing. Instead, Washington should focus on changing Chinese behavior, not the CCP.


Proponents of a strategy to change the Chinese regime argue that the CCP’s singular interest in clinging to power spurs China’s repressive domestic policies and international assertiveness, including its efforts to damage liberal norms and institutions. . From this point of view, the illiberal character of the party makes it a particularly coercive and predatory actor. Then, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien articulated this point in a 2020 article in Foreign Affairs, in which he asserted that “the ideological agenda of the CCP extends far beyond the borders of the country and represents a threat to the idea of ​​democracy itself ”.

This analysis, however, ignores additional factors that motivate Chinese behavior. Even before the CCP came to power in 1949, for example, China often acted as an aggressive imperial power, forcing its neighbors to accept its regional hegemony and seeking (but often failing) to institutionalize a system of deference to preferences. Chinese. The balance of power between China and neighboring governments, the politics of elites in China, and the reactions of China’s neighbors to Beijing’s demands, among other factors, have all interacted in complex ways to produce assertive behavior.

Although updated for contemporary circumstances, these dynamics remain relevant today. Any strategy that focuses primarily on targeting the CCP itself would therefore fail to significantly change Chinese behavior. Even if the United States attempted to transform the character of the Chinese party-state, for example by targeting CCP leaders through sanctions and supporting internal government challenges, success would be far from guaranteed. Such an approach ignores the sources of Chinese assertiveness, and it would lock Beijing and Washington into a dangerous and spiraling conflict.

Any attempt at regime change would likely fail and impose long-term costs on US efforts to shape Chinese behavior.

Any effort to hurt the CCP from outside would also be unlikely to gain the support of the Chinese people and instead strengthen loyalty to the party, especially among the large, growing and ambitious middle class. Many in China would see such a campaign as an attempt to hinder the country’s long-delayed rise and recall the Western interference that kept China weak and divided throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The specter of a rekindled US imperialism at a time when Chinese suspicion of the United States is at its highest level could increase the popularity of Chinese President Xi Jinping and push him to take even more ambitious steps in the process. abroad, to the detriment of American interests and a broader peace. and security throughout Asia.

An attempt to overthrow the CCP would also undermine U.S.-China cooperation on issues that require minimal partnership, including responding to Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs and addressing climate change. What’s more, an aggressive strategy would reduce Washington’s ability to handle the most controversial issues in its dealings with Beijing, including Taiwan’s status.

The most important reason to avoid obsessing over China’s obnoxious regime, however, is that this fixation threatens a vital U.S. advantage: Washington’s vast network of partners and allies. Building and sustaining international coalitions that constrain Chinese actions will be vital in any attempt to change Beijing’s behavior. Coordinated action among allies, partners and friends of the United States is crucial, for example, to combat China’s exploitative economic practices and to deter possible military aggression across Asia. And the harsh reality Washington faces is that most American allies and partners are not interested in regime change in Beijing. Most assume it’s impossible, and others see it as counterproductive. Instead, most want to profit from their economic ties with China as its economy grows and diversifies. They want to limit Beijing’s assertive behavior abroad, but they have little desire to undermine the Chinese government at home.

A US strategy focused on regime change would therefore face serious problems rallying partners and could potentially undermine Washington’s broader efforts to orchestrate an effective balance of power both in Asia and globally. If the United States loses sight of this central objective, it will be less able to solve international problems and impose real costs on China.


The United States should not ignore the CCP’s egregious actions at home and abroad. Nor should American officials pretend they are indifferent to the harmfulness of the Chinese government. Competition between the two states over ideas of governance, both national and international, is clearly emerging. But Washington should remain focused on confronting the regime’s threatening behavior instead of launching a crusade against the CCP itself. This means prioritizing the creation of an international environment that collectively balances, binds, deters and shapes China’s choices.

Such a strategy requires foster states that are, at a minimum, not vulnerable to pressure from Beijing and, at times, ready to fend off Chinese coercion and predation. This involves forging coalitions on important issues such as technology transfers, deepening trade integration between friendly capitals, and ensuring that allies such as Australia and Japan are both willing and capable of countering possible Chinese military actions in the Indo-Pacific. It could also involve articulating explicit norms of acceptable international behavior, legitimizing them through multilateral institutions and, if necessary, enforcing them by US military might. Constraining Beijing’s behavior in this way, rather than targeting the regime, offers the best hope of strengthening the rules-based international order that protects vital US interests.

What matters is whether Washington can change Beijing’s actions and conduct.

A practical approach to changing China’s behavior will also inevitably aim to prevent Beijing from undermining core U.S. diplomatic, economic, technological, and military interests. To achieve this, Washington could target a wide range of activities, including Chinese efforts to abuse the international trading system, steal advanced technologies from the United States and its allies, intimidate American partners, project Chinese influence. abroad and promote Beijing’s hybrid market authoritarianism. as an alternative to the liberal order. Opposing these activities, however, does not imply an exclusively adversarial relationship or means that all bilateral competition will necessarily be zero-sum. Yet this strategy inevitably assumes some form of competitive coexistence between Beijing and Washington, with both sides constantly fighting for advantage and influence in the world. Such a relationship can be both dynamic and disruptive, but this outcome would be preferable to open conflict, which would be the inevitable outcome of a US policy aimed at deliberately destabilizing a competitor’s regime of government.

At the end of the day, what matters is not whether the United States can change China’s motives, but whether Washington can change Beijing’s actions and conduct. Such an approach might only make tactical progress: neither the brutality nor the revisionist impulses of the CCP are likely to change. But as long as Washington changes the way Beijing views its interests and the way it pursues them, the United States can protect the liberal international order at large – and that would be a victory enough.


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.