China's main worry is that the United States is too strong and too tough. An editorial last week in the Global Times summarizes the Chinese view well. The authors cite U.S. military deployments both inside and outside the first island chain as evidence that America is reneging on its "pledge" not to contain China, and calls on Washington to find a new "balance point" for the relationship rather than "hop[ing] to extend the old way of bullying weaker countries." A weaker America, however, would not be in China's interest. Benign U.S. hegemony has provided the stable conditions that have allowed China to prosper. Beijing has long enjoyed a free ride off the security Washington provides. If that ride disappears, China will be in even deeper trouble.
China should think carefully about what the world would look like if the United States fails as a great power. What if no country provided the public goods requisite for great-power peace, such as open access to the global commons, deterrence of adversaries, and efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Can China continue to prosper in a world with unprotected sea lanes or with an increasing number of volatile nuclear states?
As China grows less predictable and the United States less willing to shoulder its responsibilities, familiar patterns of bilateral relations must change. The first step is for both countries to recognize that weakness in either country will not benefit the U.S.-China relationship or international order. America must be prepared for a less stable China. While continuing to check destabilizing Chinese activities, the key objective for Washington is to press harder for the stability that can only come with democratic reform. China should desist from undermining American efforts to preserve regional and global stability, and instead encourage the United States to maintain its commitments. And both sides need to prepare for the possibility that by the time the next big summit rolls around, China may be in decline and America may still be on the rise.