An American Chinook helicopter flies over the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15. Photo: AP
As I see it
by Maria Siow
As I see it
by Maria Siow

Don’t get overconfident, China: rumours of US decline may be greatly exaggerated

  • China has been pointing out an American downturn long before the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan sparked global discussions on the subject
  • While this may be understandable among keyboard warriors, it should never find its way into Beijing’s official doctrine, lest there be crucial miscalculations
Way before the chaos in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops prompted global discussions of American decline, the Chinese had already reached that conclusion.
When Covid-19 engulfed the United States last year, Chinese media and commentators pointed to the high death toll and claimed that American incompetence in taming the raging pandemic was a clear sign of the country’s downturn.

State media outlets described the US as a diminishing and hostile power, with the People’s Daily calling America’s deterioration a matter of time.

The Global Times said combined with America’s other problems such as “racial discrimination, social division and confrontation between political parties”, the pandemic had highlighted the “stagnation and further decline” of the US.

As further proof, Chinese netizens pointed to what they described as crumbling US infrastructure and its inability to catch up with China’s 5G capabilities.

He Yiting, executive vice-president of the Communist Party of China’s Party School, last December cited the US’ lack of developmental vitality, the hollowing out of its industries, ageing population, and widening income gap.


In July, Chinese vice-foreign minister Le Yucheng weighed in by noting of the US that “no matter how powerful a country is, hegemony will lead the country to decline as it finds no support in the world”.

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During the storming of the US Capitol in January by hundreds of supporters of former president Donald Trump, many in China said it was a sign of the collapse of American democracy and its political system.

Chinese voices have in recent days reached a fever pitch on the subject after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan before the US completed its troop withdrawal.

Responses on social media platforms ranged from gleeful to thoughtful, with some in the former camp mockingly saying the “the US has escaped from Afghanistan with its tail between its legs” and the latter solemnly pronouncing that the world is “witnessing a historical turning point in the decline of the US empire”.

Chinese media and diplomats said the crisis in Afghanistan, which followed Washington’s costly two-decade war in the country, was a sign the US could not be trusted by allies and partners in Europe and Asia.
More than 600 Afghans crammed into a US Air Force plane flying from Kabul to Qatar on August 15. Photo: AFP
In light of US-China competition and resentment over Western accusations that Covid-19 originated in China, seeing the US humbled and taken to task in the international court of opinion is richly satisfying to the Chinese, and perhaps even understandable.

Trumpeting America’s decline also has the effect of rallying public opinion and support behind a common cause, and even stirs patriotism.

But this constant and relentless emphasis could lead to overconfidence that might colour Beijing’s outlook and orientations when dealing with Washington.

This was the stance taken by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in a report last month, adding that “the more this view becomes official dogma, the more likely Beijing is to overestimate US decline”.

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“China’s … likely overconfidence may lead to an international posture that is more emboldened, confident, and confrontational,” the report said.


While events over the past two years may have given the impression that America is in a downturn, it is still way too early to dismiss the US as a failing power, at least by Washington’s current largest adversary.

Thumbing one’s nose at American shortcomings can very well be a spectator sport for countless Chinese keyboard warriors, but it should never find its way into official doctrine and policy.

Otherwise, Beijing will risk overestimating its own strengths, understating American resilience or, worse, miscalculating US strategic and military intentions, especially in the Taiwan Strait.

Above all, China should bear in mind the words of its ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, who alluded to the importance of “knowing the enemy and knowing yourself, so that in 100 battles one will never be in peril”.