Two Trends in the China-US Balance of Power Have Not Changed
During the last US election year, people used “two wars, one crisis” to describe the United States at that time, thinking that US power was slipping or even in decline; at that time, the expressions “the China Century has begun” and “rising China” were used to describe China, which had successfully hosted the Olympics and the World Expo. “A rising China vs. a declining United States” is a popular catchphrase to depict the China-US balance of power for a time.
The year 2016 ushered in a new US general election year, and due to the United States’ economic recovery and China’s economic downturn, there has been more discussion of “the United States’ strong resurgence” as well as hyping a new wave of the “China collapse theory.” Relatedly, the United States seems to have regained its once-lost confidence. The so-called “rise of China and the decline of the United States,” the mass rise of emerging powers, and the eastward shift in world power are rarely discussed any more.
The assertion of “China’s rise and the United States’ decline” based on the financial crisis at that time and the opinion of “the United States is revitalizing while China is in decline” based on today’s economic situation were simplistic, radical, and emotional judgments , which seems unscientific, irrational, non-objective, and illogical. In fact, objective and comprehensive analysis shows that the two overall trends that influence the future international pattern and the trends of China-US relation have not changed.
First, the trend of the China-US balance of power gradually drawing closer has not changed. In judging a country’s power, we should look at both physical power such as economic, military, and scientific strength and also looking at invisible power like political power, strategic power, and international influence. Looking at today’s China and the United States from this perspective, we notice that although the US economy is recovering, its international influence is actually declining; and although China’s economy is slowing, its international influence is increasing significantly. The reason is that the US economic recovery was achieved in a way that sacrificed some of its international influence. For example, it used the hegemony of the US dollar to engage in quantitative easing and trade protectionism and took advantage of regional contradictions to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to fragment East Asian integration. It lost its leadership over major crises like the Ukraine, Syria, and Islamic extremism in the fight for the economy. The result is although the US economy is up, the global economy is still teetering on the brink of crisis; although the strength of the US dollar has recovered, the world situation is more volatile. Therefore, we can say that the US economic recovery is a sort of “selfish recovery” or “inhalational growth.” That this round of US economic recovery has not stimulated an overall recovery in the global economy is proof.
In contrast, although the economy has slowed in China, that is the result of proactive structural adjustment and transformation of methods and it was done for a healthier operation of our economy and for a more balanced development of the global economy. Meanwhile, China has sent positive energy to the outside world that it hopes the countries of the world will get a ride on the China “express” and that it is willing to share the results of economic development with the countries of the world. The rapid rise of China’s international influence is one of the most prominent characteristics of the current international pattern.
Second, the trend of the widening power gap between China, the United States, and the other powers has not changed. Even if we only look at the economy, the United States’ real GDP growth rate in 2015 was 2.4% with the total of $18.13 trillion, which is indeed attractive and eye-catching. However China’s growth rate of 6.9% was within expectations and still an extraordinary achievement. China’s total GDP in 2015 reached 67.67 trillion renminbi, and the gap with the United States continues to shrink. The more important thing is that the United States is not the only country with a total economy that exceeds $10 trillion. According to IMF estimates, the sum of the GDPs of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France in 2015 was $12.77 trillion, and the sum of the US and Chinese GDPs has reached $29 trillion, exceeding the former number by $16 trillion. This gap was only around $6 trillion in 2009.
These two basic trends mean that the overall trend of Chinese and US power drawing closer is not changing due to temporary issues, and thus, an increasingly intense strategic competitiveness between the two powers of China and the United States and a more prominent and comprehensive strategic gaming between them will be an objective reality that will not change as one wishes. We do not need to intentionally avoid this reality, nor do we need to deliberately exaggerate it; the key is how we face it. China has said it is willing to explore jointly building a new type of great power relationship with the United States. This is based on an overall judgment regarding the above-mentioned two overall trends. It has a sense of crisis that takes care of things ahead of time and prevents problems from arising as well as a positive stance of proactive shaping and constructive cooperation. It seeks to plan the future of China-US relations from a historical perspective and strategic heights. One sentence omitted.
The United States Should Not Commit a Third Strategic Mistake
The current situation requires that the Americans get a handle on the situation, have the right attitude, and assume an appropriate stance, otherwise they may miss a good opportunity and accidentally commit a third strategic mistake.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has committed two major strategic mistakes. The first was to mistakenly regard the collapse of Soviet Union as the result of the “US victory over the Soviet Union” and ignore the complex internal and external factors for it, and thus using the condescending and arrogant attitude of the victor in its treatment of Russia: On the one hand, it mistakenly prescribed “shock therapy” and gave lip service to all manner of aid to Russia, which led the Russian economy to languish; and on the other hand, it continued to harass Russia and accelerate the eastward expansion of NATO, which forced Russia into a corner and made Russia feel threatened in terms of its security. The even more serious thing is that US political and academic circles have generally held contempt for Russia and have either scoffed or have overreacted at Putin’s every action; they lack a deep understanding and a basic respect for Russia’s internal and external behaviors and its motivations. Today, the United States and Russia have not only failed to achieve reconciliation, they have once again moved toward confrontation and even slid toward risking a “new Cold War.” Due to this situation, the Ukraine crisis, and the Syria crisis have been complicated and difficult to resolve; misfortune has haunted Europe, the Middle East, and the whole world; and this will ultimately adversely impacts the United States.
The United States committed it second strategic mistake when it launched the Iraq war in 2003. The George W Bush administration mistook countries’ support of its counterterrorism as support for the United States doing as it wished, and thus the list of counterterrorist subjects got longer and longer, “terrorist — terrorism — Islamic extremists — state sponsors of terrorism — axis of evil — outposts of tyranny,” which made the war against terrorism into a tool to eliminate anyone different than itself and abuse the international community’s counterterrorism cooperation. The result was the regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown but Iraq’s situation got much worse. Dragged down in this way, the Middle East situation keeps getting worse and has even fallen into its current unresolvable deadlock.
Given the first two major strategic mistakes in Europe and the Middle East, we cannot help but worry that the United States may once again commit a third strategic mistake in the Asia-Pacific region. Namely, it may mistake invitations by countries like Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam to interfere in East and South China Sea affairs for a welcome from all Asia-Pacific countries to the United States to contain China, thus siding with the party states that oppose China without principle or careful judgement and wantonly exaggerating China’s every move in the East and South China Seas, and ultimately “commencing a protracted struggle” with China whether knowingly or otherwise.
If the United States does want to do so and takes advantage of a variety of contradictions to wave a huge net to comprehensively contain China, then that is another matter entirely. That means that the United States has fallen into blind thinking regarding the overall strategic trends, which is not in line with the “multi-partner world view” and the “smart power strategic concept” for which Obama advocates and is not in line with the reality of China and the United States having a variety of profoundly interdependent interests. If this is due to misjudgment of the situation or to misinterpretation of China, or because the White House cannot rein in the Pentagon and is going farther and farther down the wrong path, then US strategic circles really need to think twice.
The problem is that besides people like Henry Kissinger, who is 90 years old and whose thinking can still advance with the times, how many American strategists can think about the future of China-US relations and China-US peaceful coexistence in the Asia Pacific from a strategic height and with a long-term perspective? Obama does not have much time left, and he is busy thinking about leaving behind a diplomatic legacy; he seeks stability and lacks innovation. China-US relations may be reduced to work done by technocrats in response to situations, dominated by emotion, and led by “third parties.” If this is the case, then the United States really is not far from a third strategic mistake. This is the area in China-US relations that is most worthy of vigilance.
[Description of Source: Beijing Huanqiu Shibao Online in Chinese — “Global Times,” a newspaper sponsored by Renmin Ribao and hosted online on the newspaper’s official website Huanqiu Wang. Articles carried on the website that are sourced to Huanqiu Shibao are typically abbreviated from the Huanqiu Shibao paper copy. Huanqiu Shibao publishes on weekdays and focuses on international issues and foreign reaction to developments in the PRC.
By Vice President YUAN PENG of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, on Beijing Huanqiu Shibao Online, in Chinese 25 Feb 16