In-Depth

by Malcolm Riddell

China & the U.S.: Getting Each Other Wrong

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Malcolm Riddell
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Founder of CHINADebate

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March 4, 2021
China & the U.S.: Getting Each Other Wrong
China & the U.S.: Getting Each Other Wrong
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China and the U.S. seem to be in the process of reassessing their views of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

  • Xi Jinping appears to be seeking some balance in his assessment of the U.S.
  • And analysts in the U.S. have reversed a trend of opinion that ‘China is inexorably rising and on the verge of overtaking a faltering United States.'
  • They argue instead ‘the United States has good reason to be confident about its ability to compete with China.’

But Mr. Xi’s subordinates reportedly don’t provide him with unbiased facts and analyses about the U.S.

  • And in the U.S. the calm assessment needed for rational China strategy is upended by the competition among politicians to see who can be toughest on China.

Thus, the chance of either side getting a clear picture of the other and making sound policy based on that is slim.

  • And that is dangerous.

1 | Misperceptions, Miscalculations, & War

‘History is replete with cases of misperception about changing power balances.’

  • ‘To prevent a new cold or hot war,the US and China must avoid exaggerated fears and misperceptions about changing power relations.’

‘Today, some Chinese analysts underestimate America’s resilience and predict Chinese dominance, but this, too, could turn out to be a dangerous miscalculation,’ writes Joe Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School.

  • ‘It is equally dangerous for Americans to over- or underestimate Chinese power, and the US contains groups with economic and political incentives to do both.’

2 | Xi Jinping Seeks a Balanced Assessment of the U.S.

Xi Jinping seems to be aware of the danger of miscalculation.

Chris Buckley of The New York Times reports in ‘ “The East Is Rising”: Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent’:

  • ‘Xi Jinping has struck a confident posture as he looks to secure China’s prosperity and power in a post-Covid world, saying that the country is entering a time of opportunity when “the East is rising and the West is declining.” ’

‘But behind closed doors, China’s Communist Party leader has also issued a blunt caveat to officials: Do not count out our competitors, above all the United States.’

  • ‘ “The biggest source of chaos in the present-day world is the United States,” Mr. Xi said, a county official in northwest China recounted in a speech published last week on a government website.’
  • ‘He quoted Mr. Xi as saying: “The United States is the biggest threat to our country’s development and security.” ’

‘That warning, echoed in similar recent public comments by senior officials close to Mr. Xi, reinforces how he is seeking to balance confidence and caution as China strides ahead while other countries continue to grapple with the pandemic.’

  • ‘His double-sided pronouncements reflect an effort to keep China on guard because, despite its success at home, it faces deep distrust in Washington and other Western capitals.’
  • ‘Although China is growing stronger, Xi has said, there are still many ways in which “the West is strong and the East is weak,” officials have recounted in speeches recently issued on local party websites.’

3 | The U.S. Seeks a Balanced Assessment of China

The U.S. seems to be going through its own reevaluation of China.

  • Nye points out:

‘Balances of power are hard to judge.’

  • ‘Those who proclaim Pax Sinica and American decline fail to take account of the full range of power resources.’

‘Even if China surpasses the US to become the world’s largest economy, national income is not the only measure of geopolitical power.’

  • ‘The US will retain some long-term power advantages that contrast with areas of Chinese vulnerability.’

And on the heels of Dr. Nye’s essay comes ‘China Is Not Ten Feet Tall: How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy,’ by Brookings’ Ryan Hass: ‘China, the story goes, is inexorably rising and on the verge of overtaking a faltering United States.’

  • ‘Among the most eager purveyors of this story line are China’s government-affiliated media outlets. Projecting self-assurance, they have also gone out of their way to contrast their own achievements with plentiful examples of American dysfunction.’
  • ‘ “Time and momentum are on our side,” Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in a speech at the Communist Party’s Fifth Plenum last fall. In January, Chen Yixin, a top security official, told a Chinese Communist Party study session, “The rise of the East and decline of the West has become a trend.” ’

‘Authoritarian systems excel at showcasing their strengths and concealing their weaknesses.’

  • ‘But policymakers in Washington must be able to distinguish between the image Beijing presents and the realities it confronts.’
  • ‘For all the obstacles facing the United States, those facing China are considerably greater.’

‘During the Cold War, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger cautioned against “ten-foot-tall syndrome”: the tendency among U.S. policymakers to view their Soviet competitors as towering figures of immense strength and overwhelming intellect.’

  • ‘A similar syndrome has taken hold in the United States today, and the harms are not just analytical.’

‘Concentrating on China’s strengths without accounting for its vulnerabilities creates anxiety. Anxiety breeds insecurity.’

  • ‘Insecurity leads to overreaction, and overreaction produces bad decisions that undermine the United States’ own competitiveness. Seeing China clearly is the first step toward getting China policy right.’

‘Washington’s bipartisan move in recent years to a hard-line approach to China has been driven above all by Beijing:’

  • ‘Chinese leaders have grown more impatiently aggressive in the pursuit of their ambitions and have increasingly leaned on nationalism, particularly as ideology and economic performance have become diminishing sources of social cohesion.’

‘But much of the shift in Washington has also been driven by a growing sense of panic about China’s strengths, leading to a bout of American insecurity.’

  • ‘Such panic is unlikely to prove constructive: an alarmed focus on degrading China’s strengths risks causing the United States to focus too little on the more essential task of bolstering its own.’

‘The United States has good reason to be confident about its ability to compete with China.’

  • ‘Self-confidence should foster a steady, patient, and wise response to China’s rise—one that can attract broad support at home and abroad.’

4 | U.S. Politics Nixes Any Balanced Assessment of China

But the need for this kind of calm assessment of U.S.-China balance of power runs headlong in U.S. politics.’

  • As Bill Reinsch of the Center for Strategic & International Studies wrote in ‘Double Feature’:

‘Speaking of China, the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando has produced an “I told you so” moment that is too good to ignore.’

  • ‘Behind the gold statue of Trump, who appears to be wearing American flag boxers, are no less than six panels discussing China on topics like “China Subverts America” and “Corporate America Surrendering to China.” '
  • ‘Featured speakers, most of whom are already running for president in 2024, are trying to outdo each other in their hostility to China and in their accusations that Democrats in general, and President Biden in particular, are soft on China and busy selling out our country.’
  • ‘As I predicted in multiple past columns, the hysteria has begun and is not going to end anytime soon.’

‘Unfortunately, what we heard at CPAC and are likely to hear from Republicans over the next four years is attacks on the fecklessness of U.S. companies that do business with China and on the Biden administration for not sufficiently punishing China.’

‘This is the politics of blame.’

  • ‘Rather than engage in a thoughtful debate about the best strategy, it simply identifies the guilty parties and attacks them along with the Chinese.'

‘Biden’s task is complicated by Congressional Democrats who yield to nobody in their ability to maintain high dudgeon.’

  • ‘The biggest difference between the parties is that the Democrats at least put more of the blame where it belongs—on the Chinese rather than the president—and spend more time talking about how to implement “running faster” solutions.’

‘Since all parties want to take a hard line, it makes sense to stop chest-beating about who is the toughest and instead work together to fashion a bipartisan strategy that will actually accomplish something rather than just produce sound bites for the next election.’

  • ‘This is too important for hysteria.’

As if that matters.

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