Perceptions of a strong and pushy China also persist because of Beijing's own behavior. The ruling Chinese Communist Party continues to exploit nationalist sentiments to bolster its credentials as the defender of China's national honor. Chinese state media and history textbooks have fed the younger generation such a diet of distorted, jingoistic facts, outright lies, and nationalist myths that it is easy to provoke anti-Western or anti-Japanese sentiments. Even more worrisome is Beijing's uncompromising stance on territorial disputes with America's key Asian allies, such as Japan and the Philippines. The risk that a contest over disputed maritime territories, especially in the South China Sea, could lead to real armed conflict makes many in the United States believe that they cannot let down their guard against China.
Sadly, this gap between the American perception of Chinese strength and the reality of Chinese weakness has real adverse consequences. Beijing will use China-bashing rhetoric and the strengthening U.S. defense posture in East Asia as ironclad evidence of Washington's unfriendliness. The Communist Party will blame the United States for its economic difficulties and diplomatic setbacks. Xenophobia could become an asset for a regime struggling for survival in hard times. Many Chinese already hold the United States responsible for the recent escalations in the South China Sea dispute and think the United States goaded Hanoi and Manila into confrontation.
The most consequential effect of this disconnect is the loss of an opportunity both to rethink U.S. China policy and to prepare for possible discontinuity in China's trajectory in the coming two decades. The central pillar of Washington's China policy is the continuation of the status quo, a world in which the Communist Party's rule is assumed to endure for decades. Similar assumptions underpinned Washington's policies toward the former Soviet Union, Suharto's Indonesia, and more recently Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya. Discounting the probability of regime change in seemingly invulnerable autocracies has always been an ingrained habit in Washington.
The United States should reassess the basic premises of its China policy and seriously consider an alternative strategy, one based on the assumption of declining Chinese strength and rising probability of an unexpected democratic transition in the coming two decades. Should such a change come, the geopolitical landscape of Asia would transform beyond recognition. The North Korean regime would collapse almost overnight, and the Korean Peninsula would be reunified. A regional wave of democratic transitions would topple the communist regimes in Vietnam and Laos. The biggest and most important unknown, however, is about China itself: Can a weak or weakening country of 1.3 billion manage a peaceful transition to democracy?
It is of course premature to completely write off the Communist Party's capacity for adaptation and renewal. China could come roaring back in a few years, and the United States should not ignore this possibility. But the party's demise can't be ruled out, and the current signs of trouble in China have provided invaluable clues to such a highly probable seismic shift. U.S. policymakers would be committing another strategic error of historic proportions if they miss or misread them.