SHANGHAI – Nationalistic sentiments in China have grown quickly in recent years
along with pride as the country's fast-paced economic development encourages
talk at home and abroad about China's rise and the United States' decline.
Excitement about the Middle Kingdom's ascendency, expressed online by the ranks
of anonymous netizens and by ordinary people on the streets is growing. As it
spreads, a number of Chinese intellectuals and strategists are pressing the
government to change its foreign policy accordingly.
This school of thought is well represented by at least two books. China Is
Unhappy, by several Chinese young journalists and writers, was a
best-seller last year. In this book, a sister volume of China Can Say No,
published in 1996, the authors argue that
China's leaders and elites should no longer tolerate oppression and humiliation
at the hands of the US and other Western countries. Fighting back tit-for-tat
to safeguard national dignity and rights demands adjustments in foreign policy
adjustments, they say.
The second book entitled China's Dream, written by Liu Mingfu, a senior
colonel of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), was published at the end of last
year and caused a new round of debate on China's international strategy. Liu
argues that a war with US is inevitable despite China's aspirations for a
peaceful rise. Thus China must make it an explicit aim in the 21st century to
beat the US to become the world No 1 power.
Needless to say, holders of such views are not content with Beijing's current
foreign policy, especially toward the US, and want change. The hypothesis that
China is rising while the US, the current sole superpower, is declining has so
far not been properly verified - particularly the part about US decline; it's
still a subject of heated debate, and to formulate a view on an unverified
hypothesis is risky business.
There may be consensus about China rising economically (and we must emphasize
the ''economically''), but in regard to a US decline, quite different views are
held outside and even inside China.
It's well known that neo-conservatives in America still consider the US is the
sole superpower in the post-Cold War era, though they may argue that US is a
benign empire. In their minds, the US is of course far from declining. Apart
from the neo-cons, liberalists such as Joseph Nye also maintain that the US is
still much stronger in terms of its soft power, a more significant strength in
the era of globalization.
On the other hand, there are many advocates in the West of the view that the US
is in decline. Since British historian Paul M Kennedy claimed in 1987 that US
power would inevitably decline, the US and the West have obsessed about it.
Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World, which was said to be
the only book on foreign affairs read by US President Barack Obama in 2009,
argues that while the rise of China, India and "the rest" is unthreatening to
the US, the George W Bush era marked the apogee of American power.
Richard N Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that
''The United States' unipolar moment is over". Even some senior officials in US
government accept this view. For instance, Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary
of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a seminar that ''We talked
about being accustomed to China's peaceful rising two year ago, and now we are
to talk about being accustomed to US's peaceful decline.''
It is fortunate for China that its current leadership, as well as the majority
of scholars in international relations and American studies, remains
cool-minded and realistic on the issue of China's rise and US decline and do
not sculpt foreign policy on an illusion. For them, China may be rising in
terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and vice versa, the US may be
declining by the same measure. But GDP growth does not mean everything. In view
of comprehensive national strength, China still has a long way to go before it
could possibly catch up with the US. And talk about the US decline, in
comparison with China's rise, presents an incomplete picture.
Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin
University of China in Beijing, maintains that the US remains strongest in
fields of military, technology and education. He also argues that undoubtedly
the most advanced universities are still American.
Similarly, Professor Sun Zhe with Tsing-Hua University in Beijing says that US
power is still mostly prominent although it has been economically damaged by
the recent international financial crisis. Li Xiangyang, an American student
with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Beijing News on
April 6 that in terms of ''comprehensive national strength'' China is still far
behind the United States. ''China and the US are not at the same level'' right
now, he said. The US has dominated the world in last half a century and built a
network of partnership all over the world. China ''does not have such wide
connections and influence''.
Because of this, at various occasions, Chinese officials, including Premier Wen
Jiabao, have publicly rejected as unrealistic the idea that through cooperation
the US and China will dominate world affairs.
Regarding US decline, two issues should be addressed. One is that whether US is
declining or not should be analyzed on the basis of a clear definition of the
word - decline. The other is that while the US remains the strongest power,
this doesn't mean it won't decline.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, "decline" means "to gradually
become less, worse, or lower". Following this definition, we may say a country
declines as it becomes weaker or loses its international influence, is damaged
by economic recession, political and/or societal instability caused by domestic
or foreign factors.
By such a definition, it cannot be said that the US is really declining.
Economically, it is still the leader of the world. In 2009, its nominal GDP
totaled US$14,270 billion according to the CIA World Factbook, despite the
negative impact of the international financial crisis and the weaker dollar.
China ranked world No 3 with only US$4,758 billion (after Japan's US$5,049
billion), a bit more than one third the size of US GDP. The US dollar remains
the currency for international settlement. The US leads the world in scientific
discovery and technological invention, while the Chinese economy still largely
relies on re-export-oriented processing manufacturing.
More importantly, despite the US suffering the worst economic crisis since
World War II, it remains stable politically and socially. By comparison, with
its fast economic development, China faces problems such as rampant corruption,
a widening wealth gap, social differentiation and social injustice, which
threaten its political and social stability. For a long time to come, Chinese
leaders may have to devote more energy and effort to dealing with domestic
problems than pondering about the country playing a greater role in
In international affairs, the US remains dominant with both its hard and soft
power. China's influence may be growing but such influence cannot be mentioned
in the same breath as that of the US. In international affairs, whether the US
''declines" or not should be examined by its capacity to set the agenda and
realize its aims. From the point of view of traditional power politics, the US
ability to control world affairs by a unilateralist approach is indeed
weakening. Nevertheless, such tendencies may no longer be an appropriate
measure of power.
The fact is, while US can no longer rely on its own power and to dominate the
international agenda, it can still do so through joint, collective and
cooperative efforts - as President Barack Obama is doing. And in doing so, the
US is still the most important player in setting the agenda in international
affairs, despite the fact that participation of others such as China, Europe or
India is becoming increasingly important.
From a Chinese perspective, would a rising China challenge US dominance in
international affairs - and thus contribute in some way to a US decline - in
the foreseeable future? As of now, China has neither the capability nor the
will to mount such a challenge.
In the contemporary international system, China may be a successful free-rider
in as much as it has yet to discover its international identity and
responsibility. In other words, China still doesn't know about what role it
should play in international affairs, but is treading carefully by ''crossing
the river by touching stones at the riverbed''.
In terms of soft power, having experienced the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the
socialist revolution in 1950s and the "Cultural Revolution" in 1960s-1970s,
China's traditional culture has become fragmented through self-denial. Now that
some officials and intellectuals are trying to restore traditional culture, it
seems that no single traditional cultural movement - such as Confucianism - can
become the dominant ideology. As such, China can hardly exert cultural
influence worldwide. Nor is China's political system popularly adored by other
countries, unlike that of the US.
Historically, China might have been a world leader during the Tang Dynasty
(618- 907 AD). For some time Chang'an (today's Xi'an), then the country's
capital, was the center of the world known to the Chinese, and meanwhile, its
political system, values and even language were accepted and copied by
neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea.
The Tang Dynasty was also recognized by members of the East-Asian international
system - the China-centered Tributary System - as a power to safeguard the
region's stability. Now, China's influence in East and Southeast Asia is much
weaker than in the Tang Dynasty.
Up to now, China's rise is still largely limited to its economic growth, little
to do with political and cultural progress. Therefore, as things stand it is
absurd to say China could soon replace the US as the world No 1.
It seems at least two conditions must be satisfied before one can talk about
China replacing the US in international society. The first is that China's
economic strength must grow to match or surpass that of US, and simultaneously,
China must completely accept Western values in the name of "modern values" in
order to gain Western recognition. Secondly, China's power must close the gap
on the US, and at the same time successfully be used to build a China-centered
international system that can be accepted by others. Clearly, under the rule of
the Communist Party, China has no intention, ambition or capability to do so.
In short, it is globalization rather than decline that is making the US change
the way it exercises power in the world. Talk about US decline has lasted
almost three decades now and has yet to become a fact. Like any other power in
world history, the US will eventually decline, but that is a long way off in
the distant future.
As Wang Yizhou, an international relations scholar in China, puts it using an
old Chinese saying, the US's position as the sole superpower will not change in
a short- or medium-term because ''a skinny camel is still bigger than a
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.