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.