As mediocre U.S. economic data continues to roll in, and U.S. interests become increasingly compromised in a bloody middle East, talk of a U.S. decline remains rampant. But is it accurate? And what does it mean to China? In this ChinaFile conversation, participants discuss the impact of the United States' fortune on China's prosperity and position on the world stage.
professor of International Political Economy, Peking University:
Talk of a U.S. decline is back in vogue. This
time, China features more (if not most) prominently in a natural follow-up
question: Which country is going to benefit? My answer: certainly
Arguably, the first round of sentiment that the
United States was declining emerged in the wake of the Arab oil embargo against
the United States and its allies in October 1973. A little more than a decade
later, the line emerged that Japan was No. 1 in economic affairs, again
questioning the United States' place in the world. In both instances, the
United States had the last laugh.
So how does China today feature in Americans'
mood about their country's place in the world? It's not as if China behaved as
OPEC did in 1973. Quite the opposite: economic growth in China helps to power a
global economic recovery. Nor is the presence of China in U.S. society even
close to that which Japan occupied in the U.S. consciousness in the mid-1980s.
To many U.S. geostrategic thinkers, the crux of the issue is that China today
-- unlike Japan 30 years ago -- has failed to meet U.S. expectations by
evolving into a like-minded country in either its domestic or foreign
To make matters worse, China simultaneously is at
odds not just with the United States over a host of diplomatic and even
geo-strategic issues in the Middle East and Africa, but also with most of its
Asia-Pacific allies over disputed maritime territories. To be sure, China is
decades away from being capable of becoming a competitor or a peer to the
United States in a military sense. But China seems capable today of making the
United States look hollow when Washington offers to defend its Asian allies
against a not-so-thinly-veiled threat.
Chinese rhetorical jingoism about the U.S.
decline is abundant, particularly in the wake of the collapse of a number of
large U.S. banks in 2008. But it would be a serious error and a profound risk
to promote Chinese domestic and foreign policy choices based on so shallow a
premise. One only needs to look at the fact that the United States has managed,
time and again over the past half century, to rejuvenate its economy, regain
societal cohesion, and maintain its influence, setting norms in global economic
and military affairs. Indeed, for the U.S.-in-decline rhetoric to resurface in U.S. society is in and of itself a sign of the country's strength, beginning
with brutal self-reflection.
Among the risks for China is the thinking that --
beginning with the conclusion that the United States is on a path of decline --
the time has come for China to design domestic political and economic policies
in a purportedly unique Chinese way. China's top leadership is correct to
remind the country that reform is a never-ending process. As to how to reform,
China can benefit from learning from the United States. What can come across as
U.S. pressure or seemingly excessive demands ought not be dismissed as unwanted
intrusion. Chinese analysts can do their country better service by admitting
publicly that policy ideas from the United States -- not just finance or export
opportunities -- have contributed positively to China's
Another risk for many Chinese thinking about
their country's foreign policy choices is the possible failure to continue triangulating
geo-strategic situations in China's neighborhood and beyond, forgetting always
to place the United States in the position of the ever-present third party. It
is just self-defeating to believe that now that the United States is on the
decline, China can afford to be less mindful of possible repercussions from its
foreign policy choices towards other countries.
On the point of triangulation: U.S. policies
toward other countries are equally consequential for China. Each member of any
three-party group stands to benefit. Just as it's good to remember that it
takes three legs to support a stool, it's also wise to recognize that one
party's gain need not automatically equal a loss for another.
The U.S.-in-decline topic can be factual and
perceived at the same time, but I believe that today it is more a matter of
perception. At the end of the day, both China and the United States will thrive
or falter under their own weight more than from outside pressure. Whether or
not the United States is indeed in decline is less relevant than the need for
both China and the United States to accept the future's unpredictability and
proceed to interact with each other.
Chang, author, The
Coming Collapse of China:
Beijing already thinks the
United States is in decline. This perception became evident at the
just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. At the defense forum, Chinese
Major General Zhu Chenghu mocked
the United States for having friends. "As U.S. power declines, Washington needs
to rely on its allies in order to reach its goal of containing China's
development," the general said. Then he mocked the United States for suffering
from "erectile dysfunction." "We can see from the situation in Ukraine this kind
of ED," he told Phoenix TV, a Hong-Kong based network.
The arrogant Chinese are
already delighted by the image of a United States on the way down. They can see
themselves accomplishing historic goals, grabbing territory, waters, and
airspace from small neighbors. They seized the Scarborough Shoal from the
Philippines in 2012
and put pressure on Second
Thomas Shoal soon afterwards. Last November, they established
their East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which includes the
sovereign airspace of Japan and which comes within miles of South Korea's. In
the first days of May, they placed
a drilling rig in what is surely Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone. They are
now embarked on a building binge in the South China Sea, constructing military
facilities -- and perhaps airstrips -- on scattered reefs and rocks.
Color the Chinese happy.
They are, however, in for a rude shock. For one thing, the United States is not
on a downward trajectory. Its position in Asia, paradoxically, is stronger than
it has been in decades. During the Post-Cold War period, nations did not think
they needed the United States as peace and stability appeared assured and as
prosperity made them strong.
Now, however, it is clear
that an aggressive China is threatening the region, so nations are working more
closely with Washington. A few days ago even old-time enemy Vietnam asked the
United States to do more.
At the moment, the Chinese
see an uncertain leadership in Washington and mistake it for decline. There is
also something else they misperceive. There is still a belief that, despite
everything, the U.S. can work with Beijing and "engage" it. The Chinese
leadership, on the other hand, apparently interprets these signals of friendship
as signs of weakness.
Because the Chinese
leadership thinks the United States is on the way out of Asia, it is pushing
the region to war. That, of course, is not in China's interest. Yet as
Beijing underestimates the United States, the danger for China is that it will,
as it seizes a perceived advantage, push Washington too far.
And perhaps the Chinese
will push others beyond their breaking points too. Beijing leaders should
remember that Chiang Kai-shek took on a marauding -- and vastly superior -- Japanese
foe in 1937 because he felt his back was to the wall, that his choice was
resistance or obliteration as he put it at the time. Beijing, by pushing
nations on its periphery to their limits at this time, is forcing them to make
the same choice against China, to resist aggression with force.
Deputy Editor, China Daily USA:
This is quite a confusing
and loaded question. I call it loaded because, given the sensational
headlines of strategic rivalry between the two nations we see so often in the
news media, it seems to assume that Chinese will be celebrating a
declining United States. And that's true; there are Chinese who might jump
for joy over a declining United States, just as there are Americans who are
eager to see China go bust. But they will by no means be the majority in
First, we have to clarify
whether the question refers to an absolute decline or a relative decline. They
are starkly different questions and will get different answers. An
absolute decline of the United States is not happening because the U.S. economy
is still growing larger and its military is stronger and better equipped than
ever. That is also true in many other sectors, such as education
But a relative decline of
the U.S. already has taken place with the rise of nations such as China, India,
Brazil, and many others in the developing world. Such a relative decline will
become increasingly prominent in the coming decades as emerging economies
continue to expand at a faster pace than does the United States'.
An absolute decline of the
United States simply does not serve China's interests, because China has
benefited enormously from a strong United States in growing China's economy,
education, technology, and various other sectors in the past 30 years of reform
and opening. That process will continue in the coming decades. And the benefits
have been mutual.
Now the question becomes
whether the relative decline in U.S. in the world is good for China or other
emerging economies. The answer now is a definite yes. A relative decline of
the United States implies that countries such as China and India have not only
lifted more people out of poverty, there are also more middle-class Chinese who
can afford to travel stateside and send their children to U.S. universities.
That has been happening and also has been warmly welcomed by the U.S. federal
government, not to mention state and city governments.
In fact, it is not just
China, India, and Brazil; a relative decline of the U.S. could mean that every
other nation in the world has become stronger, a true cause
Peter Gries, Director of Institute
for U.S.-China Issues, University of Oklahoma:
United States in decline? If so, is that good for China? Personally, my answers are
both no. First, the Chinese and U.S. developmental trajectories do not exist in
hydraulic relationship. Chinese growth does not necessitate U.S. decline. The
U.S.-China trade imbalance, the U.S. debt, China's massive holdings of U.S.
treasury bills, and China's high growth rates compared to the United States
create the impression that China's economy is stronger than the United States'
-- an erroneous view held by the majority of Americans in recent surveys.
But the United States does
not seek growth rates at Chinese levels (as a more developed economy, such
growth rates would likely spark inflation), and the trade imbalance and debt
issues are best understood in terms of Mutually Assured Economic Destruction --
any attempt by China to stop purchasing U.S. debt would likely devalue the
dollar, and thus China's own massive reserves. Indeed, it is the United States
that arguably holds more of the economic cards, as it can set its dollar policy
as it wishes, devaluing Chinese reserves.
Second, even if the United
States were in decline, it would not be good for China. History reveals many
instances of declining hegemons initiating conflicts with rising challengers to
forestall their loss of power. And the Chinese and U.S. economies are so
interdependent that a serious U.S. economic decline would hurt China,
especially in the short run, as the Chinese economy remains dependent upon
exports to large markets like the United States.
But what I think
is irrelevant. As a political psychologist, I believe that perception is
reality. We act on the basis of worlds of our own making, not on the world as
it really is. That is why discourses of China's rise and the United
States' decline can be dangerous: they create the very threats that they claim
to simply describe.
American advocates of
tougher China policies have long warned of China's rise. Offensive realists
like John Mearsheimer claim
that growing Chinese power is inherently threatening to the extant
And Chinese advocates of
tougher U.S. policies are increasingly trumpeting China's rise and U.S.
decline. The party seems to have become a victim of its own propaganda. With
the global financial crisis five years ago, the party convinced many in the
Chinese public, not to mention party ranks, that the Chinese system is
superior, while the West is in decline. As a result, as Gordon Chang notes
above, PLA generals now mock U.S. power. And Chinese
cyber-nationalists now demand that the party take tougher policies towards
neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as a stronger China should
be given deference. If it is not, that creates anger.
Central to Chinese Occidentalism
today is the construction of China's rise on the basis of U.S. decline. Similar
to constructions of Chinese harmony on the basis of American hegemony, such
discourses of difference are pernicious, constructing threat in the American
Other, and lay the psychological foundations for another U.S.-China conflict in
the 21st century.
Wu Jianmin, former Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations:
Is a declining United
States good for China? To answer this question, we need to look at the United
States in a comprehensive way.
First, in the new century,
the U.S. has fought two and half wars: one each in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a
half war in Libya. The United States made strategic mistakes in doing so; these
wars were highly expansive and contributed to the decline of the United States,
so much so that today it is not as willing as in the past to start a
political gridlock is institutional. Partisan politics is in a stalemate.
People tend to put their party's interest first. Who cares about the general
interest? Everybody sees this problem. There is no quick fix.
Third, compared to emerging
countries' growth rate over the past 20 years or so, U.S. growth rate is relatively
slow. That gives the impression that the United States is declining. Having
said that, I believe that the U.S. decline is relative. In the foreseeable
future, no country in the world will be able to overtake the United States in a
comprehensive way, and it will remain the only superpower. Moreover, as a
country of immigrants, the United States enjoys a tremendous capacity for
innovation. As long as the United States keeps that capacity, it will not go
down irreversibly. At some point, it can always rejuvenate.
The way this question is
posed implies a zero-sum mentality: as if a declining U.S. is good for China,
and a rising China is bad for the U.S. People tend to forget the fact that the
world has changed profoundly, from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game. In
the past 36 years, China has risen steadily and the United States has benefited
from China's rise instead of being made a victim. It was really a win-win
situation. It is true that China and the United States have differences, but
the fundamentals remain unchanged. China and the U.S. are two quite different
countries; we have differences now and 100 years from now we'll still we'll
have differences. For the benefit of our two countries, as well as for the rest
of world, we should guard against falling into the zero-sum game mentality
trap, which would make both of us losers.
Buruma, political and cultural commentator:
For a long time the
post-World War Two order suited everyone in East Asia. With a pacifist
constitution, written by Americans, and shielded by the U.S. nuclear umbrella,
Japan could concentrate on doing nothing but business. Maintaining Japan, as
well as South Korea, as loyal vassal states dotted with U.S. military bases
made the United States into the main regional player. And even China was happy
to focus on consolidating Communist Party rule at home without having to worry
about a resurgence of Japanese military power.
After party Chairman Mao
Zedong's death, the situation began to change. Since communism, let alone
Maoism, no longer convinces most Chinese, the party has to resort to
nationalism to justify its monopoly on power. And modern Chinese nationalism
means, inevitably, a degree of hostility to Japan. In stoking this particular
fire, which holds its own domestic risks, the party is much helped by the nationalistic
rhetoric of right-wing Japanese politicians.
China would like to regain
its pre-modern status as the dominant East Asian power. A major irritant,
therefore, is the continuing presence of the United States as the regional
policeman with Japan as its loyal deputy. The dilemma for China is this: If the
United States were to retreat from its postwar role, because Americans either no
longer wish to run an informal empire or lack the money to fund it, the
alternative would have to be a revitalized Japan as a military power, with or
without a revision to its constitution.
It might actually be a good
idea for the United States gradually to hand over the task of balancing China
to Japan. In the end, East Asian powers will have to come to their own arrangements.
But in the short run, a U.S. retreat could well spark a serious conflict.
There is no easy way out of
this dilemma. Unless China expects everyone to knock their heads against the
floor in deference to Beijing, they either have to settle for more years of Pax
Americana, or cope with a nuclear-armed Japan. Neither option is very
attractive to the Chinese, but there really is no other choice.
White, Professor of Strategic Studies, Australian
A declining United States?
Wait a minute. U.S. President Obama was quite right to say, as he did at West
last month, that the United States is not in decline. But, he was quite
wrong to say
that "by most measures, the United States has rarely been stronger relative to
the rest of the world." The reality is very different, and quite stark. As the
president himself has acknowledged many times, the ultimate source of the
United States' power, like any country's, is its economy. The U.S. economy is
not in decline, but unfortunately that is not what matters.
What matters is that
China's economy has grown so far and so fast, and is still growing much faster
than the United States'. This has already produced the largest and fastest
shift in the relative sizes of economies in history, and it isn't
over yet. In all probability China will overtake the United States to become
the world's biggest economy in purchasing power parity terms very soon, and in
market exchange rate terms not long after. That will not soon make China into the
United States' equal on every dimension of power, but it will -- indeed already
has -- made it the most formidable competitor the United States has
China is already far
stronger economically relative to the United States than the Soviet Union ever
was, which makes it ultimately far more formidable. And makes it simply wrong
and irresponsible for U.S. political leaders -- and for the country's friends
and allies -- to keep saying that the United States is still as powerful as it
ever was. It is hard to escape the conclusion that we are in some kind of
denial about a reality we are reluctant to face. This must end. The United
States cannot get its relations with China right unless its leaders recognize
and acknowledge how the distribution of power between them has shifted.
But is this shift in power
good for China? At one level of course it is, seen from China's perspective -- and
we can hardly expect them to see it any other way. Some would argue, however,
that China itself needs U.S. power to maintain the peace and stability in Asia
that China itself needs to keep growing. That makes sense if you assume that
U.S. primacy is the only possible basis for stability in Asia, but China does
not share that assumption. It seems likely that in Beijing they believe that
Chinese primacy would work just as well.
They may be mistaken. China
will be very strong, but not strong enough to dominate Asia the way the United
States has done. So Asia faces a more fluid and complex power balance in the future.
China would be well-advised to ask whether in that new situation an active U.S.
role might not make things easier for China in managing its relations with
other major regional powers such as Japan, India, and Russia. If so, the shift
in relative power to China is good for China, but complete U.S. withdrawal from
Asia Would be bad for China. The guys in Beijing should keep this in mind.