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  • Jul 26, 2014
  • Updated: 4:08pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

China must see past its own hype of an America in decline

Zha Daojiong says Chinese policymakers and analysts should not believe their own jingoistic rhetoric about a US in decline. Even if it's true, a weak America isn't good news for China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 June, 2014, 3:04am

Talk of the US being on the decline is back in vogue. This time, China features more prominently - if not solely - in the follow-up question: which country is going to benefit? My answer is different: it's certainly not China who will benefit.

Arguably, the first round of sentiment claiming that the United States was in decline emerged in the wake of the Arab oil embargo on America and its allies in 1973. A little more than a decade later, Japan's rise to be No 1 in economic affairs helped bring back the questions about America's relative place in the world. However, in both instances, America managed to have the last laugh.

How does China feature in the current mood in the US about America's place in the world? It is not as if China has behaved as Opec did in October 1973. Quite the opposite, in fact; Chinese economic growth is helping to power the global economic recovery.

Nor is the Chinese presence in American society even close to that of the Japanese in the mid-1980s. To many American geostrategic thinkers, the crux of the issue is that China, unlike Japan back then, has failed to meet US expectations of evolving to become a "like-minded" country, in either domestic or foreign policy.

To make matters worse, China is simultaneously at odds not just with the US but most of its Asia-Pacific allies on maritime territorial and a host of other diplomatic and geostrategic issues in the Middle East and Africa. To be sure, China is decades away from competing on an equal footing with the US on military terms, if indeed that is ever attainable. But it does seem capable of making the US look hollow when Washington offers to defend its Asian allies against a not-so-thinly-veiled threat.

China abounds with jingoistic rhetoric about a declining US, particularly in the wake of the collapse of a number of large banks in 2008. But it would be a serious error, not to mention profoundly risky, for China to promote domestic and foreign policy choices based on that shallow premise. One should remember that, in the past half century, the US has managed to rejuvenate its economy, regain social cohesion and maintain its influence in setting standards in global economic and military affairs. Indeed, the very fact that rhetoric about the US in decline has resurfaced in American society is, in itself, a sign of American strength, starting with brutal self-reflection.

One risk for China is that if it does indeed conclude that the US is on a path of decline, it may then think the time has come 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 learn from the US. If anything, what comes across as American pressure or seemingly excessive demands ought not to be dismissed as unwanted intrusion.

Chinese analysts can better serve their country by publicly admitting that policy ideas from the US, not just finance or export opportunities, have contributed positively to China's prosperity.

Another risk, more so for the Chinese thinkers considering the country's foreign policy choices, is to continue triangulating the geostrategic situations in China's neighbourhood and beyond, with the US seen as that ever-present third party. It is self-defeating to believe that now the US is on the decline, China can afford to be less mindful of possible repercussions in policy choices towards another country.

For China, the US, and the other party, it is useful to bear in mind the saying that it takes three legs to keep a stool stable. In other words, to avoid a downward spiral in regional security dynamics, it is essential to ditch the thinking that one party's loss means an automatic gain for the other two. Each pair of countries should learn to work out their differences by themselves.

Whether the US is in decline is really more a matter of perception than fact.

At the end of the day, what happens inside the US - and in China for that matter - will dictate whether it thrives or falters, more than any outside influence. What really matters is that both China and the US learn to accept some level of unpredictability about the future and proceed to interact with each other.

Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at the School of International Studies, Peking University

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dunndavid
Good essay. It's always a mistake to bet against the U.S. The U.S. has the weakest President since Jimmy Carter 1976-1980. American people don't like the current state so expect changes coming. As for China, it doesn't look like China's ascent will continue on it's present path. China, Taiwan and Japan rose to advanced prosperity with increased international engagement and capitalism, both of which China is pulling back from.
zhelu1985@live.com
The "people still want to move into the US therefore 'muerika is still #1" argument shows a total ignorance of historical precedence.
In the waning days of the Roman Empire, all the Germanic tribes were bent on migration into the Empire, crossing the Rhine and Danube frontiers.
Just because a dying empire still attracts immigrants does not mean it's not a dying empire.
As someone who lived in the US for 15 years, I can assure you, the US is very much in decline.
tony.barnes.9699
Great article. Very insightful
likingming
Unless you could overcome the language barrier, you are not welcomed to migrate to China.
HK-Explorer
So many Chinese are moving to the US that US will just become another state of China.
likingming
Comparative advantage working.
With 1.4 billion talents in China, that would be the best export, no other country could come close.
Beaker
talent? your 1.4 B must assume 100% of them are "talented". I am sure 8% of the Chinese making up the Party membership are fat, dumb, lazy, corrupt, and living off the backs of the working poor, stealing all of their money and not talented. Every week now, the CCP are finding another 2-3 which fits my description of fat, dumb, lazy and corrupt, so I have proof.
yuxx88
The comments on Chinese emigration to the US are noteworthy. Here in NYC, we see all kinds of immigrants from China. The poor continue to pay smugglers to enter the country to work as dishwashers in Chinatown, while an increasing number of rich Chinese are buying multi million USD apartments in Manhattan and sending their kids to Ivy League universities. And guess which country tops the list of applicants for our immigrant investor program? China. The poor will always flee for economic reasons. But. The fact that the rich are leaving says something profound. If things are so good in China, why are so many people leaving?
kongshan2047
The best way to determine whether a nation is set to become the world's No. 1 is by examining how many people actually intend to migrate there. Historically, the US has and still remains as the magnet of the world. But how many people in the world want to migrate to China?
likingming
Ask the hundreds of thousands of HKers who have migrated to China !

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