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Daniel W. Drezner

The missing links in Wang Jisi’s great power analysis

Your humble blogger is spending the first half of this week at the International Studies Association’s annual conference.  This means that news stories that would ordinarily catch my eagle eye the day they come out take a little longer to penetrate my alcohol-bleary cerebral cortex read.  Still, if they’re important enough, they require a blog ...

Your humble blogger is spending the first half of this week at the International Studies Association’s annual conference.  This means that news stories that would ordinarily catch my eagle eye the day they come out take a little longer to penetrate my alcohol-bleary cerebral cortex read.  Still, if they’re important enough, they require a blog response. 

Yesterday the New York Times’ Jane Perlez reported that Wang Jisi — China’s most prominent international affairs writer — has offered a surprisingly stark view of how China’s leadership views the United States:

The senior leadership of the Chinese government increasingly views the competition between the United States and China as a zero-sum game, with China the likely long-range winner if the American economy and domestic political system continue to stumble, according to an influential Chinese policy analyst.

China views the United States as a declining power, but at the same time believes that Washington is trying to fight back to undermine, and even disrupt, the economic and military growth that point to China’s becoming the world’s most powerful country, according to the analyst, Wang Jisi, the co-author of “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, a monograph published this week by the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.

The United States is no longer seen as “that awesome, nor is it trustworthy, and its example to the world and admonitions to China should therefore be much discounted,” Mr. Wang writes of the general view of China’s leadership.

In contrast, China has mounting self-confidence in its own economic and military strides, particularly the closing power gap since the start of the Iraq war. In 2003, he argues, America’s gross domestic product was eight times as large as China’s, but today it is less than three times larger.

The candid writing by Mr. Wang is striking because of his influence and access, in Washington as well as in Beijing. Mr. Wang, who is dean of Peking University’s School of International Studies and a guest professor at the National Defense University of the People’s Liberation Army, has wide access to senior American policy makers, making him an unusual repository of information about the thinking in both countries. Mr. Wang said he did not seek approval from the Chinese government to write the study, nor did he consult the government about it. (emphasis added)

If Wang is telling the truth in that last bolded section, it’s quite extraordinary.  One of the common laments among U.S.-based international relations scholars is that there is no point in having a China-based scholar come to a conference on Sino-American relations, because the Chinese scholar inevitably clams up whenever the discussion turns to the thinking in Beijing.  If Wang doesn’t have to worry about that, it’s a sign of his relative influence. 

That said, what about his analysis?  You can read it by clicking here.  Wang doesn’t pull many punches.  Here’s an assortment of quotes from it: 

Chinese distrust of the United States has persisted ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949….China’s strategic distrust of the United States is deeply rooted, and in recent years it seems to have deepened.

Since 2008, several developments have reshaped China’s views of the international structure and global trends, and therefore of its attitude toward the United States. First, many Chinese officials believe that their nation has ascended to be a firstclass power in the world and should be treated as such…. Second, the United States is seen in China generally as a declining power over the long run…Third, from the perspective of China’s leaders, the shifting power balance between China and the United States is part of
an emerging new structure in today’s world.

Fourth, it is a popular notion among Chinese political elites, including some national leaders, that China’s development model provides an alternative to Western democracy and experiences for other developing countries to learn from, while many developing countries that have introduced Western values and political systems are experiencing disorder and chaos. The China Model, or Beijing Consensus, features an all-powerful political leadership that effectively manages social and economic affairs, in sharp contrast to some countries where “color revolutions” typically have led to national disunity and Western infringement on their sovereign rights….

It is widely believed in the Chinese leadership that the Americans orchestrated awarding
the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in October 2010….

Chinese officials have paid special attention to the Obama administration’s statements of a new pivot of America’s strategic focus to Asia, made during the APEC meetings in Hawaii and the East Asia Summit in Indonesia in November 2011. In Beijing’s interpretation, many of Washington’s latest actions in Asia, including the decisions to deploy on rotation U.S. marines in Darwin, Australia, encourage Myanmar (Burma) to loosen domestic political control, and strengthen military ties with the Philippines, are largely directed at constraining China.

You should read the whole thing.  I have three thoughts.  First, I’m sure to many American readers, Wang’s description of Chinese thinking about the U.S. verges on the conspiratorial and paranoid.  According to Beijing, the United States does what it does only to constrain and weaken China.  And, indeed, this does seem outladish, until one thinks about what is written about China in the United States — by presidential candidates no less

Second, if Wang’s assessments really reflect the thinking in Beijing about the future of world politics, then Chinese diplomacy is about to face a world of hurt.  In Wang’s essay, the United States is the chief architect of any misfortune or policy reversal that affects the Middle Kingdom.  Wang notes the U.S. "pivot" without speculating why countries like South Korea, Vietnam, or even Myanmar might be so eager to welcome Washington with open arms.  If Chinese policymakers truly believe that the U.S. is solely to blame for these turn of events, then they will likely continue to act in ways that alienate their neighbors in the Pacific Rim, thereby exacerbating the geopolitical straight-jacket that they disliked in the first place. 

Third, Wang notes that, in the short run, China has an incentive for the U.S. economy to recover.  I’d add that the reverse is true.  Relations with China would be difficult if Beijing suffered a growth slowdown.  That would increase the domestic political pressure on the CCP at a time when they’re already a bit stressed out.  Furthermore, based on Wang’s analysis, Chinese elites would likely blame the U.S. for any downturn. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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