Is a U.S. Decline Good News for China?

Experts ask if the two juggernauts remain locked in a zero-sum game.


As mediocre U.S. economic data continues to roll in, and U.S. interests become increasingly compromised in a bloody middle East, talk of a U.S. decline remains rampant. But is it accurate? And what does it mean to China? In this ChinaFile conversation, participants discuss the impact of the United States' fortune on China's prosperity and position on the world stage.

As mediocre U.S. economic data continues to roll in, and U.S. interests become increasingly compromised in a bloody middle East, talk of a U.S. decline remains rampant. But is it accurate? And what does it mean to China? In this ChinaFile conversation, participants discuss the impact of the United States’ fortune on China’s prosperity and position on the world stage.

Zha Daojiong, professor of International Political Economy, Peking University:

Talk of a U.S. decline is back in vogue. This time, China features more (if not most) prominently in a natural follow-up question: Which country is going to benefit? My answer: certainly not China.

Arguably, the first round of sentiment that the United States was declining emerged in the wake of the Arab oil embargo against the United States and its allies in October 1973. A little more than a decade later, the line emerged that Japan was No. 1 in economic affairs, again questioning the United States’ place in the world. In both instances, the United States had the last laugh.

So how does China today feature in Americans’ mood about their country’s place in the world? It’s not as if China behaved as OPEC did in 1973. Quite the opposite: economic growth in China helps to power a global economic recovery. Nor is the presence of China in U.S. society even close to that which Japan occupied in the U.S. consciousness in the mid-1980s. To many U.S. geostrategic thinkers, the crux of the issue is that China today — unlike Japan 30 years ago — has failed to meet U.S. expectations by evolving into a like-minded country in either its domestic or foreign policy orientations.

To make matters worse, China simultaneously is at odds not just with the United States over a host of diplomatic and even geo-strategic issues in the Middle East and Africa, but also with most of its Asia-Pacific allies over disputed maritime territories. To be sure, China is decades away from being capable of becoming a competitor or a peer to the United States in a military sense. But China seems capable today of making the United States look hollow when Washington offers to defend its Asian allies against a not-so-thinly-veiled threat.

Chinese rhetorical jingoism about the U.S. decline is abundant, particularly in the wake of the collapse of a number of large U.S. banks in 2008. But it would be a serious error and a profound risk to promote Chinese domestic and foreign policy choices based on so shallow a premise. One only needs to look at the fact that the United States has managed, time and again over the past half century, to rejuvenate its economy, regain societal cohesion, and maintain its influence, setting norms in global economic and military affairs. Indeed, for the U.S.-in-decline rhetoric to resurface in U.S. society is in and of itself a sign of the country’s strength, beginning with brutal self-reflection.

Among the risks for China is the thinking that — beginning with the conclusion that the United States is on a path of decline — the time has come for China 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 benefit from learning from the United States. What can come across as U.S. pressure or seemingly excessive demands ought not be dismissed as unwanted intrusion. Chinese analysts can do their country better service by admitting publicly that policy ideas from the United States — not just finance or export opportunities — have contributed positively to China’s current prosperity.

Another risk for many Chinese thinking about their country’s foreign policy choices is the possible failure to continue triangulating geo-strategic situations in China’s neighborhood and beyond, forgetting always to place the United States in the position of the ever-present third party. It is just self-defeating to believe that now that the United States is on the decline, China can afford to be less mindful of possible repercussions from its foreign policy choices towards other countries.

On the point of triangulation: U.S. policies toward other countries are equally consequential for China. Each member of any three-party group stands to benefit. Just as it’s good to remember that it takes three legs to support a stool, it’s also wise to recognize that one party’s gain need not automatically equal a loss for another.

The U.S.-in-decline topic can be factual and perceived at the same time, but I believe that today it is more a matter of perception. At the end of the day, both China and the United States will thrive or falter under their own weight more than from outside pressure. Whether or not the United States is indeed in decline is less relevant than the need for both China and the United States to accept the future’s unpredictability and proceed to interact with each other.

Gordon Chang,  author, The Coming Collapse of China:

Beijing already thinks the United States is in decline. This perception became evident at the just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. At the defense forum, Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu mocked the United States for having friends. "As U.S. power declines, Washington needs to rely on its allies in order to reach its goal of containing China’s development," the general said. Then he mocked the United States for suffering from "erectile dysfunction." "We can see from the situation in Ukraine this kind of ED," he told Phoenix TV, a Hong-Kong based network.

The arrogant Chinese are already delighted by the image of a United States on the way down. They can see themselves accomplishing historic goals, grabbing territory, waters, and airspace from small neighbors. They seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 and put pressure on Second Thomas Shoal soon afterwards. Last November, they established their East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which includes the sovereign airspace of Japan and which comes within miles of South Korea’s. In the first days of May, they placed a drilling rig in what is surely Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. They are now embarked on a building binge in the South China Sea, constructing military facilities — and perhaps airstrips — on scattered reefs and rocks.

Color the Chinese happy. They are, however, in for a rude shock. For one thing, the United States is not on a downward trajectory. Its position in Asia, paradoxically, is stronger than it has been in decades. During the Post-Cold War period, nations did not think they needed the United States as peace and stability appeared assured and as prosperity made them strong.

Now, however, it is clear that an aggressive China is threatening the region, so nations are working more closely with Washington.
A few days ago even old-time enemy Vietnam asked the United States to do more.

At the moment, the Chinese see an uncertain leadership in Washington and mistake it for decline. There is also something else they misperceive. There is still a belief that, despite everything, the U.S. can work with Beijing and "engage" it. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, apparently interprets these signals of friendship as signs of weakness.

Because the Chinese leadership thinks the United States is on the way out of Asia, it is pushing the region to war. That, of course, is not in China’s interest. Yet as Beijing underestimates the United States, the danger for China is that it will, as it seizes a perceived advantage, push Washington too far.

And perhaps the Chinese will push others beyond their breaking points too. Beijing leaders should remember that Chiang Kai-shek took on a marauding — and vastly superior — Japanese foe in 1937 because he felt his back was to the wall, that his choice was resistance or obliteration as he put it at the time. Beijing, by pushing nations on its periphery to their limits at this time, is forcing them to make the same choice against China, to resist aggression with force.

Chen Weihua, Deputy Editor, China Daily USA 

This is quite a confusing and loaded question. I call it loaded because, given the sensational headlines of strategic rivalry between the two nations we see so often in the news media, it seems to assume that Chinese will be celebrating a declining United States. And that’s true; there are Chinese who might jump for joy over a declining United States, just as there are Americans who are eager to see China go bust. But they will by no means be the majority in either nation.

First, we have to clarify whether the question refers to an absolute decline or a relative decline. They are starkly different questions and will get different answers. An absolute decline of the United States is not happening because the U.S. economy is still growing larger and its military is stronger and better equipped than ever. That is also true in many other sectors, such as education and technology.

But a relative decline of the U.S. already has taken place with the rise of nations such as China, India, Brazil, and many others in the developing world. Such a relative decline will become increasingly prominent in the coming decades as emerging economies continue to expand at a faster pace than does the United States’.

An absolute decline of the United States simply does not serve China’s interests, because China has benefited enormously from a strong United States in growing China’s economy, education, technology, and various other sectors in the past 30 years of reform and opening. That process will continue in the coming decades. And the benefits have been mutual.

Now the question becomes whether the relative decline in U.S. in the world is good for China or other emerging economies. The answer now is a definite yes. A relative decline of the United States implies that countries such as China and India have not only lifted more people out of poverty, there are also more middle-class Chinese who can afford to travel stateside and send their children to U.S. universities. That has been happening and also has been warmly welcomed by the U.S. federal government, not to mention state and city governments.

In fact, it is not just China, India, and Brazil; a relative decline of the U.S. could mean that every other nation in the world has become stronger, a true cause for celebration.

Peter Gries, Director of Institute for U.S.-China Issues, University of Oklahoma:

Is the United States in decline? If so, is that good for China? Personally, my answers are both no. First, the Chinese and U.S. developmental trajectories do not exist in hydraulic relationship. Chinese growth does not necessitate U.S. decline. The U.S.-China trade imbalance, the U.S. debt, China’s massive holdings of U.S. treasury bills, and China’s high growth rates compared to the United States create the impression that China’s economy is stronger than the United States’ — an erroneous view held by the majority of Americans in recent surveys.

But the United States does not seek growth rates at Chinese levels (as a more developed economy, such growth rates would likely spark inflation), and the trade imbalance and debt issues are best understood in terms of Mutually Assured Economic Destruction — any attempt by China to stop purchasing U.S. debt would likely devalue the dollar, and thus China’s own massive reserves. Indeed, it is the United States that arguably holds more of the economic cards, as it can set its dollar policy as it wishes, devaluing Chinese reserves.

Second, even if the United States were in decline, it would not be good for China. History reveals many instances of declining hegemons initiating conflicts with rising challengers to forestall their loss of power. And the Chinese and U.S. economies are so interdependent that a serious U.S. economic decline would hurt China, especially in the short run, as the Chinese economy remains dependent upon exports to large markets like the United States.

But what I think is irrelevant. As a political psychologist, I believe that perception is reality. We act on the basis of worlds of our own making, not on the world as it really is. That is why discourses of China’s rise and the United States’ decline can be dangerous: they create the very threats that they claim to simply describe.

American advocates of tougher China policies have long warned of China’s rise. Offensive realists like John Mearsheimer claim that growing Chinese power is inherently threatening to the extant international system.

And Chinese advocates of tougher U.S. policies are increasingly trumpeting China’s rise and U.S. decline. The party seems to have become a victim of its own propaganda. With the global financial crisis five years ago, the party convinced many in the Chinese public, not to mention party ranks, that the Chinese system is superior, while the West is in decline. As a result, as Gordon Chang notes above, PLA generals now mock U.S. power. And Chinese cyber-nationalists now demand that the party take tougher policies towards neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as a stronger China should be given deference. If it is not, that creates anger.

Central to Chinese Occidentalism today is the construction of China’s rise on the basis of U.S. decline. Similar to constructions of Chinese harmony on the basis of American hegemony, such discourses of difference are pernicious, constructing threat in the American Other, and lay the psychological foundations for another U.S.-China conflict in the 21st century.

Wu Jianmin, former Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations:

Is a declining United States good for China? To answer this question, we need to look at the United States in a comprehensive way.

First, in the new century, the U.S. has fought two and half wars: one each in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a half war in Libya. The United States made strategic mistakes in doing so; these wars were highly expansive and contributed to the decline of the United States, so much so that today it is not as willing as in the past to start a new war.

Second, Washington political gridlock is
institutional. Partisan politics is in a stalemate. People tend to put their party’s interest first. Who cares about the general interest? Everybody sees this problem. There is no quick fix.

Third, compared to emerging countries’ growth rate over the past 20 years or so, U.S. growth rate is relatively slow. That gives the impression that the United States is declining. Having said that, I believe that the U.S. decline is relative. In the foreseeable future, no country in the world will be able to overtake the United States in a comprehensive way, and it will remain the only superpower. Moreover, as a country of immigrants, the United States enjoys a tremendous capacity for innovation. As long as the United States keeps that capacity, it will not go down irreversibly. At some point, it can always rejuvenate.

The way this question is posed implies a zero-sum mentality: as if a declining U.S. is good for China, and a rising China is bad for the U.S. People tend to forget the fact that the world has changed profoundly, from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game. In the past 36 years, China has risen steadily and the United States has benefited from China’s rise instead of being made a victim. It was really a win-win situation. It is true that China and the United States have differences, but the fundamentals remain unchanged. China and the U.S. are two quite different countries; we have differences now and 100 years from now we’ll still we’ll have differences. For the benefit of our two countries, as well as for the rest of world, we should guard against falling into the zero-sum game mentality trap, which would make both of us losers.

Ian Buruma, political and cultural commentator:

For a long time the post-World War Two order suited everyone in East Asia. With a pacifist constitution, written by Americans, and shielded by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Japan could concentrate on doing nothing but business. Maintaining Japan, as well as South Korea, as loyal vassal states dotted with U.S. military bases made the United States into the main regional player. And even China was happy to focus on consolidating Communist Party rule at home without having to worry about a resurgence of Japanese military power.

After party Chairman Mao Zedong’s death, the situation began to change. Since communism, let alone Maoism, no longer convinces most Chinese, the party has to resort to nationalism to justify its monopoly on power. And modern Chinese nationalism means, inevitably, a degree of hostility to Japan. In stoking this particular fire, which holds its own domestic risks, the party is much helped by the nationalistic rhetoric of right-wing Japanese politicians.

China would like to regain its pre-modern status as the dominant East Asian power. A major irritant, therefore, is the continuing presence of the United States as the regional policeman with Japan as its loyal deputy. The dilemma for China is this: If the United States were to retreat from its postwar role, because Americans either no longer wish to run an informal empire or lack the money to fund it, the alternative would have to be a revitalized Japan as a military power, with or without a revision to its constitution.

It might actually be a good idea for the United States gradually to hand over the task of balancing China to Japan. In the end, East Asian powers will have to come to their own arrangements. But in the short run, a U.S. retreat could well spark a serious conflict.

There is no easy way out of this dilemma. Unless China expects everyone to knock their heads against the floor in deference to Beijing, they either have to settle for more years of Pax Americana, or cope with a nuclear-armed Japan. Neither option is very attractive to the Chinese, but there really is no other choice.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies, Australian National University:

A declining United States? Wait a minute. U.S. President Obama was quite right to say, as he did at West Point last month, that the United States is not in decline. But, he was quite wrong to say that "by most measures, the United States has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world." The reality is very different, and quite stark. As the president himself has acknowledged many times, the ultimate source of the United States’ power, like any country’s, is its economy. The U.S. economy is not in decline, but unfortunately that is not what matters.

What matters is that China’s economy has grown so far and so fast, and is still growing much faster than the United States’. This has already produced the largest and fastest shift in the relative sizes of economies in history, and it isn’t over yet. In all probability China will overtake the United States to become the world’s biggest economy in purchasing power parity terms very soon, and in market exchange rate terms not long after. That will not soon make China into the United States’ equal on every dimension of power, but it will — indeed already has — made it the most formidable competitor the United States has ever encountered.

China is already far stronger economically relative to the United States than the Soviet Union ever was, which makes it ultimately far more formidable. And makes it simply wrong and irresponsible for U.S. political leaders — and for the country’s friends and allies — to keep saying that the United States is still as powerful as it ever was. It is hard to escape the conclusion that we are in some kind of denial about a reality we are reluctant to face. This must end. The United States cannot get its relations with China right unless its leaders recognize and acknowledge how the distribution of power between them has shifted.

But is this shift in power good for China? At one level of course it is, seen from China’s perspective — and we can hardly expect them to see it any other way. Some would argue, however, that China itself needs U.S. power to maintain the peace and stability in Asia that China itself needs to keep growing. That makes sense if you assume that U.S. primacy is the only possible basis for stability in Asia, but China does not share that assumption. It seems likely that in Beijing they believe that Chinese primacy would work just as well.

They may be mistaken. China will be very strong, but not strong enough to dominate Asia the way the United States has done. So Asia faces a more fluid and complex power balance in the future. China would be well-advised to ask whether in that new situation an active U.S. role might not make things easier for China in managing its relations with other major regional powers such as Japan, India, and Russia. If so, the shift in relative power to China is good for China, but complete U.S. withdrawal from Asia Would be bad for China. The guys in Beijing should keep this in mind.

Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at Peking University.
Gordon Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China."
<p> Chen Weihua is chief Washington correspondent for China Daily and deputy editor of China Daily USA. </p>
Peter Gries is the director of Institute for U.S.-China Issues at University of Oklahoma.
Wu Jianmin is executive vice chairman of the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, and China's former ambassador to France.

Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Hugh White is a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University.

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