In Other Words

The Inscrutable Hegemon

Gaochu busheng han-lengzhanhou meiguo de quanqiu zhanlue he shijie diwei (Lonely at the Top: America’s Post–Cold War Global Strategy and Status) By Wang Jisi, ed. 406 pages, Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1999 (in Chinese) Meiguo de quanqiu baquan yu zhongguo mingyun (America’s Global Hegemony and China’s Fate) By Zhao Lujie, He Renxue, and Shen Fangwu ...

Gaochu busheng han-lengzhanhou meiguo de quanqiu zhanlue he shijie diwei
(Lonely at the Top: America’s Post–Cold War Global Strategy and Status)

By Wang Jisi, ed. 406 pages, Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1999 (in Chinese)

Meiguo de quanqiu baquan yu zhongguo mingyun
(America’s Global Hegemony and China’s Fate)

By Zhao Lujie, He Renxue, and Shen Fangwu 242 pages, Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 1999 (in Chinese)

Even by the standards of the most jaded observers of U.S. politics, the debate over the United States’ China policy has been one of the most high-pitched, divisive, and partisan foreign policy controversies since the end of the Cold War. Often overlooked in Washington, sadly, is the simultaneous — and no less heated — debate in Beijing on China’s policy toward the United States.

Just as U.S. foreign policy elites argue endlessly whether China is friend, foe, or neither, China’s policymakers and opinion makers are incurably obsessed with U.S. intentions toward China. And like their counterparts in the United States, China’s elites are no less bitterly divided. Many (mostly pragmatist) Chinese leaders and analysts understand the complexity of China’s relationship with the United States and see it both as a source of enormous benefits (trade, investment, and technology) and as a potential threat (to one-party rule and China’s claim to Taiwan). Others, mainly the more nationalist and conservative members of the elite, firmly believe that the United States has already embarked on a course of strategic containment of China. As in Washington, where conflicts over China policy have led to inconsistency and instability in bilateral relations in the last decade, Beijing’s own inconclusive debate has caused policy confusion and reversals that have done their share of harm to Sino-American ties. Lonely at the Top and America’s Global Hegemony may help illuminate the two contrasting views of the United States held by China’s elites.

Lonely at the Top reflects the views of China’s pragmatists. Edited by Wang Jisi, one of China’s leading U.S. watchers, this book contains a collection of 10 lengthy essays on U.S.-Chinese relations and various aspects of U.S. domestic politics, social change, economics, and global strategy. The contributors include academics from the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), an influential think tank known in the 1990s for its progressive and reformist views, and the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Chinese Academy of Military Science, one of the premier research establishments of the Chinese military and arguably the most secretive among China’s major research institutes. Although the quality of scholarship varies from chapter to chapter, the book is an attempt to provide a nuanced analysis of the political dynamics that drive U.S. foreign policy in general, and China policy in particular. Highly academic and densely written, it nonetheless quickly sold out its first print run of 5,000 copies.

For Chinese leaders, the most critical as well as the most unfathomable question concerns the United States’ post–Cold War grand strategy. The chapter on this issue, written by Wang Jisi, offers the kind of complex analysis that one rarely sees in official Chinese statements, which often characterize Washington’s global strategy as hegemonic, interventionist, and belligerent.

In Wang’s view, post–Cold War U.S. grand strategy is unfocused, self-contradictory, and confusing rather than directed toward global hegemony. Consequently, the United States has not been able to convert its unchallenged power into unquestioned leadership. "Although the United States is deeply involved in the affairs of various regions around the world," Wang observes, "it has not established its desired leadership image. It is either accused of being hegemonistic and shortsighted, or viewed as weak and indecisive." Wang attributes this sorry state of affairs to many factors. Externally, various regions, countries, and political actors have sent the United States mixed messages and confusing demands, making it impossible for the United States to judge or respond appropriately. Internally, recent domestic political developments — the decline of the president’s power over foreign policy, the split within the U.S. Congress over foreign policy, loss of coordination among the foreign policy bureaucracies in the executive branch, and the rising influence of nongovernmental actors and parochial interests — have contributed to the post–Cold War drift in U.S. grand strategy.

Wang believes this situation is unlikely to change soon. The United States’ economic, military, and scientific dominance will remain unchallenged for at least two to three decades. The only forces that may undermine U.S. power are domestic, such as declining social cohesiveness (as a result of rising racial tensions, disintegration of the family, and pervasive crime), worsening economic inequality, and loss of public confidence in political leaders. Wang believes that precisely because the United States does not have a defined adversary in today’s world, the greatest obstacle to U.S. hegemony is the United States itself. Because the country lacks the will for global domination, Wang warns that the real threat to the world is not raw U.S. power, but rather the spread of its social ills such as excessive consumerism, polarized distribution of wealth, drug addiction, criminality, and declining moral values.

Wang’s analysis of U.S. China policy also captures the intricacies of post–Cold War, Sino-American relations. The central feature of this relationship is the duality of friction and cooperation between the two countries. Although the differences between the United States and China are "deep and all-around" (human rights, trade, weapons proliferation, and Taiwan), the two countries also "share a basis for cooperation and common interests." However, a policy that tries to balance this duality is devilishly difficult to execute. To make things worse, powerful U.S. domestic actors such as Congress, the media, organized labor, and the human rights lobby severely constrain the administration’s engagement policy toward China. As a result, Sino-American discord will be a constant that both sides must manage, but Washington is likely to maintain its current China policy as long as Beijing refrains from crossing certain red lines and harming fundamental U.S. national interests.

The chapter on the United States’ human rights diplomacy also differs from China’s party line (which emphasizes the hypocritical and strategic nature of U.S. human rights policy). Its author, Zhou Qi, traces the evolution of U.S. human rights diplomacy over the last three decades. Zhou, another researcher at CASS, argues that domestic political actors — such as Congress, the media, and other interest groups — are the primary forces driving U.S. human rights policy. The tensions between domestic forces representing idealism and policymakers steeped in the tradition of realism are responsible for policy inconsistencies and contradictions. Nevertheless, Zhou sees little danger that idealism will dominate U.S. foreign policy in the future because "American exceptionalism" — the wellspring of U.S. idealism — represents only one strand of political culture in the United States.

Unlike Lonely at the Top, America’s Global Hegemony is an unvarnished, anti-American polemic written by three young (mid-30s) junior military officers affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Science. Since the publication of China Can Say No, an anti-American tract that became an overnight commercial success in 1996, quite a few similar potboilers have found their way into China’s bookstores. There is one striking — as well as disturbing — feature of the works produced by this informal "Say No" club: None of them is based on serious research or facts. America’s Global Hegemony has few footnotes and a very short list of references (most of which are secondary Chinese publications).

The authors also undermine their own argument with outrageous claims. For instance, they assert that economic interests motivated military intervention in Kosovo. In their view, the bombing of Yugoslavia was conducted to "support America’s bubble economy and provide windfall profits for the military-industrial complex." Another goal was to use the Kosovo conflict to undermine the euro and defend the U.S. dollar’s hegemonic status in the world economy. They even see the dark hand of Uncle Sam in the speculative attacks launched by large hedge funds against the Hong Kong dollar in 1997 and 1998, insisting, for example, that the Soros Quantum Fund was supported by the U.S. government.

A primary target of U.S. global hegemony is China, as the authors try to establish in the second half of the book. Their litany of grievances is familiar: U.S. criticisms of China’s human rights practices, weapons sales to Taiwan, trade sanctions, restrictions on technology transfers, and strategic containment. Like U.S. China bashers who exclusively highlight Chinese actions that harm U.S. interests, China’s U.S. bashers have singled out bilateral disputes while giving no credit to U.S. efforts to improve relations.

Despite the shrill tone and troubling content of books such as America’s Global Hegemony, they hardly represent popular Chinese sentiments toward the United States. Opinion surveys conducted by a reputable private polling firm, Horizon Research Group of Beijing, have consistently shown that most Chinese remain ambivalent about the United States. Although they express resentment toward the United States because of its criticisms of China’s human rights policy (this may come as a surprise to many Americans), threats of trade sanctions, and support of Taiwan, most ordinary Chinese admire the United States’ international status, popular culture, economic dynamism, and scientific achievements. In a 1995 poll of 1,050 urban residents, the United States was rated the "most impressive country" (ahead of Japan, Singapore, and Germany). Of the 10 cities respondents selected as their most desired places to visit, three were in the United States. The respondents also reported that Americans accounted for the highest percentage of foreign friends they had. Six American presidents were rated among the top 10 most influential world leaders. Such public sentiments seem not to have been greatly affected by recent turmoil in Sino-U.S. relations. According to the head of the private polling firm, this duality of resentment and admiration remains the central feature of Chinese popular perception of the United States.

It is also doubtful that books like America’s Global Hegemony have a real effect on policy. Obviously, they may simultaneously dismay those Chinese leaders favoring a stable relationship with the United States and delight others who believe that Beijing has been too "soft" on Washington. In any case, China’s top policymakers are certainly not as ill-informed about the United States or as careless in their judgment as the authors of America’s Global Hegemony. There may be one Machiavellian explanation for the publication of such books in a society known for its censorship: By allowing the venting of such anti-American vitriol, Chinese leaders can appear tough to their hawkish critics while trying to manage a complex and difficult relationship with Washington. Seasoned observers of President Bill Clinton’s China policy must find this tactic all too familiar.

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