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How Does China View the Question of American Leadership, and Perceived American Decline?

REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool - U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew (L) talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 13, 2014.

In March 2014, I published Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint —a book that argues that both American decline and China’s rise (as well as that of other powers) has been substantially exaggerated. I’ve talked about these themes in several American cities, in Canada and in Europe. And while the questions that accompany my presentation vary, there’s one that is always asked: how do the emerging powers react to this argument?

Brazil's and India’s Reaction

I had a good sense of what the Brazilian and Indian reaction would be. There are many parts of the argument that are deeply sympathetic both to their rise and their position, and as for the places where I’m critical, my friends in both capitals recognize that I’m critical from a position of underlying support. What’s more, there’s no one in either Brasilia or New Delhi that has any genuine pretense to leadership of the international system – and quietly, several of them still look to Washington to lead the international system, albeit taking the emerging powers’ interests increasingly into account. For all the pageantry and rhetoric that surrounds the BRICS and their Summits, the fact is that both Brazil and India recognize that many of their interests lie closer to those of the U.S. than those of China.

China’s Reaction

But what the Chinese reaction would be, I wasn’t sure. Americans spent a lot of time over the past month debating the news that China had overtaken the U.S. when measured by ‘purchasing power parity’. So what would the Chinese make of my argument that the underlying realities are that the U.S. still holds an important lead in the international economy? Given the importance China places on forging “a new kind of great power relations” with Washington, given their increased willingness to put military weight behind their interests in the East and South China Sea, what would they make of an argument that the United States, and its alliance system, still constituted the essential pillar of a stable international system?

I spent the last week in Beijing, finding out.

It’s worth highlighting here that life in Beijing these days is far more similar to life in Washington than the mythology suggests—that is to say, there’s deep debate, not monolithic opinion, within China. So there’s no simple way to characterize Chinese opinion on anything, let alone a topic as broad and sensitive as U.S. leadership of the international system.

But if there’s a Friedman-esque short-hand here, it’s this: the more senior the interlocutor in China, the more frank they are in acknowledging that the U.S. still holds a major lead in economic, political and security affairs. In a way, that’s obvious on military issues. What was striking was how widespread this recognition was even in economic affairs.

With both scholars and with officials, I found a consistent recognition that the PPP measure of the Chinese economy is unreliable at best. Taking into account both real GDP, the major lead that the U.S. has in technology and innovation, the still huge gap in per-capita GDP, the Chinese economic and business establishment are perfectly clear-eyed. As one of my most senior interlocutors put it, there’s a “huge gap” between Chinese economic strength and that of America. China has an aspiration, widely shared, to join what they describe as the “50% club”—that is, those states who enjoy a per capita GDP at or just below 50% of that of the United States. China’s economic managers are well aware that the United States is the richest of the large economies (the highest per capita income of countries over 20 million)—a major accomplishment that China aspires, over time, to meet part way. For now, and for at least a couple of decades, China will have to strive hard to reach that 50% goal. And what’s more, China’s current suite of reforms are premised on a recognition that the only pathway to that goal is through deeper integration with the global economy—including cooperation and mutual investment with the United States. China may call for a shift from the dominance of the U.S. dollar, but it has yet to take the tough internal reforms to its currency that would make it able to press a credible case—and even then, it’s not clear that it would have many takers.

Engagement in Iraq?

When it comes to political and security affairs, the issue was dramatized by the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Whatever the debate in Washington is about whether the U.S. should re-engage militarily, there’s exactly no question that China could (or should)—and that’s despite deep oil interests at stake. We can celebrate or bemoan the Administration’s decision to move slowly (or hesitantly or prudently, depending on where you sit) on military support to the Maliki government in confronting the ISIS, but no one serious would even raise the question of what role China should play. Asked the question about whether China is ready to take on greater responsibility on international crisis management, the answer within Beijing is uniform: we have neither the capacity nor the interest to take on shared responsibility, in the near to medium term.

Granted, there’s a certain sense of ‘I can insult my brother, but you’d better not’ here. Better for a Chinese state manager to acknowledge the continuing gap, than for the Americans to insist on it. But the irony is that China’s managers and scholars are more realistic about the continuing gap between China and the United States than many of America’s home-grown declinists. Time for a rethink in the U.S.

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