Minxin Pei has a good piece in The Diplomat about how Chinese foreign policy is determined by the domestic concerns of the Communist Party- and how this in turn can lead to worse outcomes for China as a whole:
China’s policy toward North Korea should be exhibit A of this conflict. Chinese national security interests dictate that China shouldn’t tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or aggressive behavior toward its neighbors. Yet, because the ruling CCP regards a reunified democratic Korea that is a close military ally of the United States as a greater threat to its regime security than a nuclear-armed hereditary dynasty (which is a threat to Chinese national security, but not the CCP regime’s security), Beijing has pursued a policy of keeping the Kim dynasty in power almost at any cost. The price China has paid in terms of diminished national security is exorbitant – an untrustworthy neighbor armed with nuclear weapons, heightened risks of regional war, real danger of being dragged into another conflict on the Korean peninsula, alienation of South Korea as a long-term strategic ally, Japan’s rearmament and antagonism toward China, and increase in American offensive capabilities in the region.
From the perspective of the CCP, the United States, with its liberal democratic missionary spirit, isn’t simply a military superpower, but an existential political threat. Such threat perception has made mutual trust impossible and precluded many measures that would have enhanced Chinese national security (such as closer military-to-military relations and rules preventing incidents at sea or enhancing cyber-security). Most tellingly, today’s CCP seems to have a stronger distrust of the U.S. than the Soviet Communist Party. According to a former senior director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader, the Soviet Union had a more developed and productive military-to-military relationship with the U.S. during the détente period of the Cold War than China does now.
Inevitably, the measures taken by the CCP to defend its regime security in the face of American power and influence lead to outcomes that undermine China’s national security, as Washington responds with a policy of strategic hedging and, most recently, a pivot toward East Asia. With the subsequent build-up of American forward deployment in the Western Pacific, strengthening of American security alliances in East Asia, and the establishment of new security relations with China’s traditional rivals such as India and Vietnam, one would have a hard time arguing that China’s national security has increased.
I suspect one could argue that democratic governments are also susceptible to these mistakes, and indeed that America itself is involved in several such unhealthy foreign policy relationships- but that’s a discussion for a different blog. It certainly is the case that the Beijing regimes fear of being completely wiped out is probably their greatest concern, something that Washington doesn’t have to worry about.