Does China Think America Is in Decline?

Does China Think America Is in Decline?

How Beijing's top "America hands" see their biggest rival.

It has been fashionable in national security circles over the last several years for U.S. experts on Asia-Pacific security to claim that Chinese strategists perceive the U.S. to be in decline. As Daniel Blumenthal queried Ambassador John Bolton at a November 2015 forum at the American Enterprise Institute: “I don’t mean to ask such a leading question… Do you think China perceives us as… declining…?” Predictably, Bolton answered in the affirmative and went on to explain that the U.S. confronts a grave credibility problem. A similar line of thinking seems also to undergird more centrist appraisals in Washington that highlight China’s “brimming confidence” as part of the problem confronting U.S. national security policy. To be fair, there has been some evidence from Chinese sources , particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for that line of reasoning. But even during that unstable time, key Chinese sources, including analyses by military experts, did not forecast any diminution of America's military advantage.

Undoubtedly, sound U.S. policy toward China will take account of how Chinese strategists assess American power. Indeed, the prevailing wisdom that China perceives U.S. frailty seems to form an important tenet of the logic of those arguing for more robust U.S. military deployments to the western Pacific, lest Beijing sense that Washington is weak in either resolve or capabilities. However, a spate of new Chinese analyses from 2015 seem to call into question these assumptions regarding Beijing’s view of the emerging balance of power. A series of articles and two fora were published on the subject of hypothetical “U.S. decline” [美国衰落] during 2015 by the two major Chinese journals Contemporary International Relations [现代国际关系] and The Chinese Journal of American Studies [美国研究]. This edition of Dragon Eye will examine these discussions with the hope of shedding additional light on current Chinese perceptions of America’s trajectory.

With respect to the theme of Chinese perceptions of the United States, one article from these journals may be of considerable importance. This article was the leader piece in a summer 2015 edition of Contemporary International Relations [现代国际关系]. Written by Wang Honggang, a director at China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) -- an important think tank in Beijing, the piece bears the provocative title “21 世纪的美国病: 美国的现代国家治理难题初析” translated by the journal itself as “An Analysis of American Syndrome: The Difficulties in Modern State Governance.” However, the use of the word “syndrome” for the Chinese character “病” may be too polite, since more common translations are “sickness” or even “disease.” The article is not a tally of aircraft carriers, nor of intercontinental nuclear missiles. Rather, it is a thoughtful attempt to explore America’s problems in a holistic way. In its sweep, the piece is almost Tocquevillian. The author probes for imbalances between American society, government and the market, concluding that the United States has confronted two similar periods of “sickness,” during the late nineteenth century (the Gilded Age) and then once again during the post-Vietnam malaise of the 1970s. Realizing that the United States had made major reforms to escape these previous periods of crisis rather successfully, Wang suggests that this third major crisis could be even more daunting.

Among the many problems that Wang describes include high levels of violence, racial tensions and economic difficulties, such as “America’s trend toward a hollowing out of the economy” [美国经济的’空心化’的趋势] and the “ever more serious [issue] of the widening gap between rich and poor in American society.” Rather than gloating over this situation, however, Wang warns his colleagues not to underestimate the ability of the American political structure, market forces and U.S. scholarship to reform the country’s direction. Indeed, much of the conclusion of the article is devoted to praising American responses—such as the Dodd-Frank Act—to recent challenges. When Wang turns to the implications of his analysis for global politics, he hardly highlights the opportunity presented by American problems as some of Washington’s hawks might predict, but rather points out that America’s internal problems “increase global risk” and concludes that this instability “could impact the more and more sensitive [nature] of U.S. -China relations.”

Another issue of the same journal (an English-language version) featured a series of short articles (translated from Chinese) attempting to gauge “U.S. fitness” or “the ups and downs of its comprehensive national power” without falling “into the trap of accepting the American outlook.” A summary of the U.S. political context constitutes the first in this series of articles and claims, similarly to a recent piece in The Atlantic , that “the long term trend will… lean left”—a trend partly attributable to increasing U.S. racial diversification. Another piece appraising overall political trends in the U.S. is quite harsh in claiming that “the American political system is flawed” and that “political elites are unable to solve problems at the national level.” However, the same piece also suggests that polarization in the U.S. is overhyped and that, in fact, “American society is highly stable” in part because the American “masses are very practical.” A report on the U.S. economy asserts that “U.S. manufacturing is reviving,” while a close examination of the Pentagon’s budget concludes that there is “no sharply decreasing trend.”