For decades, China’s official media and political commentators have habitually depicted the United States as a declining power and the global power structure as moving into multipolarization. Some obvious new evidence of the waning of U.S. influence on global affairs and its tainted image includes Washington’s inability to change the regime in Syria, failure to take advantage of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, compromise with Iran, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, defense budget cuts, the Federal government shutdown, Edward Snowden’s surveillance disclosures, and the clumsy, ineffective response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The incipient inward-looking tendency of the United States is regarded in China as a natural consequence of its diminished capability to “lead the world” rather than as the result of a lack of interest in serving as the world’s policeman and “democratic beacon.” In fact, few in China follow America’s domestic political entanglements closely. What is relevant to China is that U.S. external power is constrained by its internal problems as well as the emergence of other international actors, such as the BRICs.
Meanwhile, Chinese international strategists have many reasons to be bullish on the rise of China. With an annual GDP growth rate above 7 percent, China’s economic size is expected to bypass that of the United States in ten to twenty years. China’s trade and investment around the world are expanding phenomenally, followed by its political and cultural influence. An increasing number of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are keen to learn from China’s development experiences and even its political model. China has become the greatest economic partner of almost all its neighbors. With the continued double-digit growth of its defense budget, China’s military prowess—in particular its naval capacity—is increasingly formidable.
If the “iron logic of power” applies in this case, what will happen to China-U.S. relations in the next decade or so? In Chinese eyes, the primary goal of the United States in world affairs is to preserve its status as the sole superpower as long as possible. That goal entails American strategic designs and efforts to weaken any actual or potential competitor. Putting themselves in Americans’ shoes, Chinese strategists would view China’s surging power as the greatest challenge to U.S. hegemony and the most likely military adversary. The corollary, therefore, is that the essence of U.S. policy toward China is containment.
In Chinese interpretations, in spite of—or because of—Washington’s inability to contain China by wielding its own power, the Obama Administration is taking advantage of China’s territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and some other neighbors by strengthening security ties with them in an effort to encircle China. The Obama Administration’s rhetoric about “strategic rebalance” or the “pivot” toward Asia has further confirmed this intention. Indeed, it is a strong belief among China’s political elites that the United States is creating tensions and inflaming distrust in other parts of Asia against China and therefore should be held responsible for those problems.
To be sure, Chinese diplomats and international specialists tend to hold a more sophisticated, balanced view. But the mainstream thinking in Beijing still perceives the U.S. involvement in Asia as an unconstructive factor. China-U.S. strategic competition, including military competition, in the Asia-Pacific region will continue, if not intensify.
Japan is a special case in point. Washington proclaims that it does not take sides in the territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkakus by the Japanese) but insists that these islands are under Japan’s administrative control and therefore are to be protected by the United States in accordance with the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. Against the larger background of China-U.S. strategic competition, Washington’s sympathy toward Tokyo in the China-Japan discord is thinly disguised, as seen from Beijing.
On the other hand, Beijing also realizes that it would not be in Washington’s interest to see an escalation of tensions between Beijing and Tokyo, which might entrap Washington in a China-Japan military conflict. While the Americans are cautioning China against miscalculation, they also have to “leash” the Japanese in order to reduce risks. Japan is a strategic asset for the United States in Asia, but it could also be a liability when its nationalism is on the rise and when it offends China and South Korea simultaneously. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in December 2013 to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A Japanese war criminals from World War II are enshrined, annoyed U.S. officials. An unrepentant Japanese attitude toward the Pacific War is not merely about history; it is also a reflection of an eccentric tendency in Japan to drift away from the American orbit in the region.
Seen from Beijing, therefore, the China-U.S.-Japan trilateral relationship is not as simple as “two against one.” Unfortunately, the China-Japan bilateral relationship is at its lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1972, encumbered by nationalist emotions, mutual disrespect, poor communication, and domestic politics. In the short run, the likelihood of mending fences is slim, and a positive U.S. role between them, should Washington want to play one, would be limited.
Another issue of China’s recent concern is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which, according to the U.S. Trade Representative, “is the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s economic policy in the Asia Pacific” and “an ambitious, comprehensive and high-standard agreement” to be negotiated and concluded by 12 countries. The United States intends to include Japan in the TPP negotiations but does not show a strong interest in China’s participation. Together with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) initiated by the United States, the TPP seems to have set a high bar for China to benefit further from overseas trade and investment, since these programs enhance such standards as market access, transparency of financial sectors, intellectual property, labor rights, environment protection, product safety, and so on, which are insufficient in China today. Many Chinese harbor the suspicion that the Americans are using these institutions, regimes, and regulations to impede China’s economic growth and maintain America’s economic supremacy.
The most challenging and sensitive issue regarding the United States that Chinese leaders are facing today is neither the “strategic rebalance” approach nor the TPP program. Rather, it is the alleged U.S. schemes to subvert the Chinese government and to penetrate politically and ideologically into Chinese society that appear to be the “clear and present danger” felt in Beijing. In the past couple of years, China’s official media and documents have sent increasingly harsh warnings to Chinese citizens that the United States is not only trying to contain China militarily and politically but, more sinisterly, waging an ideological war aimed at generating chaos and disorder in China.
Chinese official reports often point out that it was the subversive American ideas and plots during the Cold War that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party and the disintegration of the USSR. Similarly, it is charged that Americans and other Westerners sowed the seeds of growing social discontent that resulted in the “color revolutions” in several former Soviet republics and in the successive waves of the Arab Spring. The lessons learned, therefore, are that China should guard against Western political influence, especially the temptation of “democratization” that may weaken Communist Party leadership in China. To this extent, despite the ostensible confidence in its political system, China is exquisitely sensitive to its own domestic vulnerabilities and continues to be preoccupied with sustaining economic growth and maintaining social order at home, leaving little energy for conducting expansionist activities abroad, except those designed to produce commercial benefit.
Interestingly enough, however, in recent years China’s policies toward the United States and some other Asian powers are often described by international observers as getting increasingly “assertive” or “aggressive.” Yet in the eyes of most Chinese commentators, these policies are still too “timid” and too “submissive”, especially in comparison with U.S. policy toward China. A more objective observation may be that both China and the United States are entering into their own respective Greta Garbo moments, but each sees the other as being both assertive and defensive at the same time.
Beijing has recently proposed to Washington that the two nations construct a “new model of major-country relations”, which the Chinese define as “no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” In rhetoric at least, Washington has responded positively to this proposal. To run the risk of oversimplification, the key to this “new model” of relations is about two orders: China’s domestic political order, and the international order the United States advocates and tries to maintain. It would be politically incorrect in the United States to proclaim that the domestic order kept by the Chinese Communist Party would serve U.S. interests. It would also be ideologically unacceptable in China to announce that the current international order sustained by American primacy should be welcomed. Paradoxically, the stark reality is that the two orders have been reinforcing each other now for the past 42 years, since Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Today, it is in China’s best interest to see a vibrant U.S. economy stimulated by technological innovations, and a benign, careful use of U.S. power in the global system. In turn, an orderly yet changing China, under a strong, reform-minded leadership, will make greater contributions to the global order in favor of the United States.