Is a Declining U.S. Good for China?

Is a Declining U.S. Good for China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Zha Daojiong:

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 not China.

Arguably, the first round of “U.S.-in-decline” sentiment emerged in the wake of the Arab oil embargo against America and its allies in October 1973. A little more than a decade later, the line that “Japan is No. 1” in economic affairs emerged, again questioning America’s place in the world. In both instances, America had the last laugh.

So how does China today feature in Americans’ mood about the U.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 American society even close to that which Japan occupied in the American consciousness in the mid-1980s. To many American geo-strategic thinkers, the crux of the issue is that China today—unlike Japan 30 years ago—has failed to meet American expectations by evolving into a ‘like-minded’ country in either its domestic or foreign policy orientations.

To make matters worse, China simultaneously is at odds not just with the U.S., 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 U.S. look hollow when Washington offers to defend its Asian allies against a not-so-thinly-veiled threat.

Rhetorical jingoism produced in China about the U.S. decline is abundant, particularly in the wake of the collapse of a number of large American 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 the American society is in and of itself a sign of American strength, beginning with brutal self-reflection.

Among the risks for China is the thinking that—beginning with the conclusion that the U.S. 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 American 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 current prosperity.

Another risk for many Chinese thinking about their country’s foreign policy choices is the possible failure to continue triangularizing 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 U.S. is on the decline that China can afford to be less mindful of possible repercussions from its foreign policy choices towards other countries.

On the point of triangularizing, United States 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 U.S. is indeed in decline is less relevant than the need for both China and the U.S. to accept the future’s unpredictability and proceed to interact with each other.

Zha Daojiong, a Senior Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S. China Relations at the Asia Society, is a Professor of International Political Economy at Peking University, where he specializes in...
Gordon G. Chang is the author The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, both from Random House. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall...
Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in Maro...
Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at the Australian National University. He studies Australian strategic and defense policy and the regional and...
Chen Weihua is a columnist and chief Washington correspondent for China Daily and the Deputy Editor of China Daily USA. He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University from 2004 to 2005, a World Press...
Peter Gries was born in Singapore and grew up in Hong Kong, Japan, and Beijing, where he attended a Chinese public elementary school and learned to throw hand grenades in sports class. He later...
Ambassador Wu Jianmin is currently Executive Vice Chairman of China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, a Senior Research Fellow of the Counselors’ office of the State Council of China...





The China Africa Relationship: Crossroads or Cliff?

Cobus van Staden, Eric Olander, Huang Hongxiang from ChinaFile Conversation
Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden publish the China Africa Project web site, whose weekly podcast we are proud to syndicate.  As we approach the sixth Forum on China Africa Cooperation Summit in Johannesburg, we’ve also picked up written...



Is China a Credible Partner in Fighting Terror?

Andrew Small, Chen Weihua, Wei Zhu, Eric Hundman from ChinaFile Conversation
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said, “China is also a victim of terrorism. The fight against the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’… should become an important part of the international fight against...



How Can China’s Neighbors Make Progress at APEC?

Le Hong Hiep, Brian Eyler from ChinaFile Conversation
Ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit next week, we asked a group of experts from China’s neighboring countries what they thought the main thrust of discussion in Manila should be. If host, the Philippines, under pressure from...



The China-Taiwan Summit

Richard Bernstein, Andrew J. Nathan, Jerome A. Cohen, Ho-fung Hung, Wei-chin Lee from ChinaFile Conversation
This Saturday, for the first time since 1949, the leaders of China and Taiwan will meet face to face. Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou will meet in Singapore, not as Presidents, but—to sidestep one of many lingering areas of conflict since the Chinese...



How Far Have China’s Economic Reforms Come over the Past Year?

Houze Song, Arthur R. Kroeber from ChinaFile Conversation
As the Chinese Communist Party leadership wrapped up its Fifth Plenum, the meeting at which the Party’s leadership set the Five Year Plan that will shape economic policy through 2020, what progress has been made on the “comprehensive deepening” of...



Making Waves in the South China Sea

Peter Dutton, Jessica Chen Weiss, Andrew S. Erickson, Elbridge Colby from ChinaFile Conversation
Challenging China’s newly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, this week the U.S. Navy sailed some of its biggest ships inside the nine-dash line, exercising its claim to freedom of movement in international waters plied by billions in trade...



Britain: ‘China’s Best Partner in the West’?

Isabel Hilton, Sebastian Heilmann , Jonathan Fenby, Sophie Richardson, Robert Barnett from ChinaFile Conversation
This week, Xi Jinping is in Great Britain for a state visit, his first since assuming leadership of China nearly three years ago. Britain’s government under David Cameron has signaled—increasingly loudly in recent months—that it hopes to usher in a...



Is There a China Model?

Daniel A. Bell, Timothy Garton Ash, Andrew J. Nathan, Taisu Zhang, Mark Danner, Rebecca Liao, Ryan Mitchell from ChinaFile Conversation
The most recent public event in our ChinaFile Presents series, which we held October 15 in New York, was a discussion of the philosopher Daniel A. Bell’s controversial book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, co-...



What Will the TPP Mean for China?

Barry Naughton, Arthur R. Kroeber, Guy de Jonquières, Graham Webster, Robert Kapp, Yoichi Funabashi from ChinaFile Conversation
On Monday, the U.S., Japan, and ten other countries concluded negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP—the largest regional trade accord in history. If approved, the agreement will set new terms for the nearly $28 trillion in trade and...



The Future of Autonomy in Hong Kong

David Schlesinger, Denise Y. Ho, Ho-fung Hung, Samson Yuen, Alvin Y.H. Cheung, Edmund Cheng, Sebastian Veg from ChinaFile Conversation
Yesterday, the governing board of Hong Kong University, one of the territory’s most esteemed institutions of higher education, voted to reject the promotion of Johannes Chan, a former law school dean, over the objections of the faculty and students...