The Rise of China: Playing the American Card


2013-10-03 by Robbin Laird

The PRC leadership clearly has growing global aspirations.

It is also a leadership living on top of a caldron of economic and ethnic dynamics.

The two can actually go together, in terms of global play and reach being a means of containing domestic pressures. 

Obviously, the reverse is also true that domestic pressures, explosions and downturns can effect global options and opportunities. In an earlier Strategic Inflections Point Report, Harald Malmgren laid out his analyses of the economic down turn dynamic.

The Chinese are very likely headed for a hard economic landing. This economic dynamic is coming in the context of a massive generational political transition within China itself. 

The two will intersect with each other to shape the evolution of China, Asia and the world beyond. During 2012 and 2013 the generational change will reshape China’s leadership. At the same time, Chinese economic growth is slowing markedly, ending decades of double-digit economic growth.

For the Chinese leadership playing the American card can be very useful in legitimizing their global reach and legitimacy.

And perceptions of the decline of the United States are an important part of the Chinese presentation of their own ascendancy.

For example, in the current showdown over the funding of the US government Chinese analysts have underscored what this says about the US role in the world.

In emerging superpower China, a one-party state where legislative deadlock holds little fear for the Communist rulers, the official Xinhua news agency said the situation had once again brought to the fore “the ugly side of partisan politics in Washington”. 

“Though its immediate impact looks limited, the damage will multiply if the drama drags on for days or even weeks, arousing concerns over its spillover effect,” it said in a commentary, referring to the US economy. 

Chinese social media users took a largely mocking tone in response to the first US government shutdown in 17 years. “Shutdown! What about the money China put in there?” posted one user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, a reference to Beijing’s massive purchases of US Treasury debt.|main5|dl1|sec1_lnk3%26pLid%3D385718

The challenge is that American elites are having difficulty understanding that the US superpower role built around the competition with the Soviet Union is now gone; the unipower role in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union was brief; and now a diverse global landscape faces the United States.

But for the Chinese leadership the notion that they are a superpower in part due to working with the US as a superpower is a very useful one. 

And American analysts can support their own views of the importance of the United States by supporting paradoxically the rise of China as a “normal” global power.

The recent Atlantic Council report on China-US Cooperation: Key to the Global Future can certainly be read in this light.

A US-China Joint “Vision Group” underscored certain global trends and hypothesized that the US-Chinese working relationship would grow and be significant in coping with these trends.  The ever-ubiquitous “global commons” shows up as an important opportunity for US and Chinese global management.

We learn as well that the report was vetted and approved by the Chinese side with minor modifications, with particular contributions from Li Zhaoxing (China Public Diplomacy Association), Qu Xing (China Institute of International Studies), Wang Jisi (Peking University), and Ruan Zongze (CIIS). 

This project and report were made possible by the generous support of the China-United States Exchange Foundation.

The assumption throughout the report is that the US and China can in some essential way manage the various global trends and challenges and provide solid global leadership.

In fact, this is an assumption.  It is just as likely that regional fragmentation is the result of the trends, which they discuss, and that China and the US will end up on various sides of the dynamics of fragmentation.  And we learn that “other nations expect us to exercise leadership in the international system.  We must do it because failure to cooperate on key global challenges will have profoundly negative consequences for the citizens of our own countries.”

In effect, this is a call for US-Chinese global management, which legitimizes the role of each side in playing such a role.  Again this is an assumption, which is certainly questionable on its own terms.

Do other states really wish to see a US-Chinese condominium managing the world?

And are the interests of a global democratic state and an authoritarian state so well aligned to allow for such a condominium?

For the first three pieces in our series on “The Changing Global Context: US and European Approaches and Options,” see the following: