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New Chinese Book Says the U.S.-China ‘Feast on Power’ is Winding Down

At a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, it comes as little surprise that a new and important book on the bilateral relations, published by a think tank affiliated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, should have the foreboding title The Twilight of a Feast on Power: The U.S. “Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific” and China’s Countermeasures. Although the book, published in July, largely tracks a familiar narrative of the irreversible decline of the U.S. cast against the unstoppable ascent of China, it also contains a notably nuanced interpretation of Washington’s intentions.

The book’s key finding is important: “The objective of the U.S. policy towards China is ‘hedging’ but not ‘containment.’” China’s rise is presenting opportunities, challenges, and uncertainty, it notes, which compel Washington “to take actions to guard against and mold China” as it tries to ensure China’s development benefits rather than threatens American interests.

This is a more sober assessment than the usual indignant howls about American containment pervasive among China’s foreign policy analysts a couple years ago and still popular in the nationalist state media.

The book, authored by a group of researchers at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)—of whom only one, Ruan Zongze, is named— theorizes that Washington’s “rebalancing” has matured alongside its views of China.

Lawrence Jackson—Zuma Press
Presidents Hu and Obama toast during a State Dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House, 2011.

The Obama administration, like several of its predecessors, initially had high hopes that China would become an active partner in the established system of global governance. But as it became clear that the “China dream” was following a different vision, Washington redefined China as “a potential challenger to U.S. global leadership, military rival, and rules-defying economic competitor,” write Ruan Zongze, Zhao Qinghai, Liu Feitao, Shen Yamei, and Cui Lei. Yet following rounds of ups and downs, the Obama administration ultimately positioned China as “a competitor that is nonetheless modifiable.” According to the book, the bilateral ties were stressed by friction over Asia’s maritime disputes but bolstered by Washington “responding positively”—although not accepting outright—Beijing’s proposition of establishing “a new type of major power relations.”

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Such “oscillations” were typical of a relationship between “neither enemies nor friends,” say the authors.

Viewed from Washington, however, bilateral ties appear to have been in linear deterioration. As Xi Jinping tightens his grip on power, clamps down on civil society, projects China’s formidable economic might in apparent challenge to America’s global influence, and flexes his muscles over China’s maritime claims, more and more voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are doubting whether a cooperative relationship is possible. Although they are still in a minority, a growing chorus questions the fundamental wisdom of engagement with Beijing, arguing it has failed to either bring about domestic political liberalization or shape China into a responsible stakeholder in the U.S.-led liberal world order.

Mainstream opinion in the two capitals nevertheless seems to be converging on the broad outlook.

“Sino-U.S. competition is a reality and will be unavoidable at times, but it can be controlled and managed,” The Twilight concludes Reaching a similar conclusion, after surveying a few hundred attendees of a Washington conference on global security challenges, Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security deduced that “most Washingtonians see growing but manageable competition with China.”

But even if both countries are becoming more clear-eyed about the competitive nature of their relationship, their ability to manage the rivalry peacefully will hinge on reconciling yawning divisions on key flashpoints, most notably the maritime disputes that pit China against Japan in the East China Sea, and against several Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.

The Twilight rehashes the prevailing Chinese narrative that Washington has exploited these East Asia security faultlines to hype the “China threat” in order to “control allies and check China.” It argues that the loudly advertised return of U.S. forces to Asia has emboldened certain countries, namely Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, to advance their maritime claims at China’s cost. With the rebalance, the book pronounces, Washington “no doubt threw oil on the fire.”

In sharp contrast, the widely-held view in the U.S., and among the aforementioned countries, is that it is China that has ratcheted up tensions. For them, actions such as declaring an East China Sea air defense identification zone, deploying an oil rig to waters disputed with Vietnam, and enlarging reefs in the South China Sea into potential military outposts have pushed frightened neighbors to seek support from Washington.

While conceding the U.S. is welcome as a security guarantor by some regional nations, The Twilight’s authors declare Washington’s sway is waning. Faced with domestic woes, distracted by crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, and unable to meet Asian allies’ expectations or secure Southeast Asian nations’ unreserved cooperation, the book says the U.S. rebalance is only delaying its decline in the Asia-Pacific from “the only superpower” to a mere “swing force.”

Next to a decaying America, the book portrays a triumphant China, taking its place in history to forge “an Asian community of common destiny.” China’s “new Asian security concept” that promotes “security for all, by all, and of all” is a compelling alternative to U.S. alliances that pursue “absolute security of a single country,” the authors write. China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”—ambitious development plans—will propel the economic takeoff of Asia, Europe, and Africa, it predicts.

“Asia has woken up and calls for Asian people to take charge of Asian affairs,” The Twilight provocatively proclaims.

Despite the melodramatic triumphalism in the pages, however, one of the authors, Cui Lei, allowed for more subtlety.

At the book launch late July in Beijing, he counted some of the Obama administration’s achievements: credible economic recovery, progress on forging a 12-economy Trans-Pacific free trade deal, normalizing relations with Cuba, and reaching an agreement with Iran to thwart its nuclear program. “The U.S. will not realize all of its strategic goals with its rebalance, but that does not mean it is declining.”

For years, Beijing’s foreign policy has been partially based on the unspoken assumption that America’s decline in Asia is as inevitable as China’s eventual regional supremacy. Although this new CIIS book does not challenge that narrative, a growing number of China's foreign policy thinkers realize that the sun may not have quite have set for America the superpower; China’s leadership in Asia is far from ordained; and its policy settings need to be adjusted for medium to long-term co-existence rather than unchallenged regional authority.