BO’AO, China >> The senior leadership of the Chinese government increasingly views the competition between the United States and China as a zero-sum game, with China the likely long-range winner if the U.S. economy and domestic political system continue to stumble, according to an influential Chinese policy analyst.
China views the United States as a declining power, but at the same time believes Washington is trying to fight back to undermine, and even disrupt, the economic and military growth that point to China becoming the world’s most powerful country, according to the analyst, Wang Jisi, the co-author of “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” a monograph published this week by the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.
Wang, who has an insider’s view of Chinese foreign policy from his positions on advisory boards of the Chinese Communist Party and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contributed an assessment of Chinese policy toward the United States. Kenneth Lieberthal, the director of the John L. Thornton Center for China Studies at Brookings, and a former member of the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, wrote the appraisal of Washington’s attitude toward China.
In a joint conclusion, the authors say the level of strategic distrust between the two countries has become so corrosive that if not corrected the two countries risk becoming open antagonists.
The United States is no longer seen as “that awesome, nor is it trustworthy, and its example to the world and admonitions to China should therefore be much discounted,” Wang writes of the general view of China’s leadership.
In contrast, China has mounting self-confidence in its own economic and military strides, particularly the closing power gap since the start of the Iraq War. In 2003, he argues, America’s gross domestic product was eight times as large as China’s, but today it is less than three times larger.
The candid writing by Wang is striking because of his influence and access, in Washington as well as in Beijing. Wang, who is dean of Peking University’s School of International Studies and a guest professor at the National Defense University of the People’s Liberation Army, has wide access to senior U.S. policymakers, making him an unusual repository of information about the thinking in both countries. Wang said he did not seek approval from the Chinese government to write the study, nor did he consult them about it.
It is fairly rare for a Chinese analyst who is not part of the strident nationalistic drumbeat to strip away the official talk by both the United States and China about mutual cooperation.
Both Wang and Lieberthal argue that beneath the surface, both countries see deep dangers and threatening motivations in the policies of the other.
Wang writes that the Chinese leadership, backed by the domestic news media and the education system, believes that China’s turn in the world has arrived, and that it is the United States that is “on the wrong side of history.” In sum, the period of “keeping a low profile,” a dictum coined by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1989, and continued until now by the outgoing President Hu Jintao, is over, Wang warns.
“It is now a question of how many years, rather than how many decades, before China replaces the United States as the largest economy in the world,” he adds.
China’s financial successes, starting with weathering the 1998 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis, the execution of events like the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai Expo in 2010, contrast with America’s “alarming” deficit, sluggish economic recovery and polarized domestic politics, Wang says.
He does not address head on the far superior strength of the United States in military weaponry. But he notes that Beijing has developed advanced rocketry and space technology and sophisticated weapons systems without the “United States or the U.S.-led world order.”
In the face of China’s strengths, and worries that the United States will be displaced from its premier position in the world, Washington is engaged in a host of activities, including stepped-up spying by U.S. planes and ships along China’s borders that anger the Chinese, particularly its military, Wang writes.
Promotion of human rights in China by U.S. supported nongovernmental organizations are viewed as an effort to “Westernize” the country and directly undermine the Communist Party, a stance the party will not stand for, he says.
That China is increasingly confident that it will prevail in the long run against the United States is backed, in part, by Lieberthal’s appraisal of U.S. policy toward China.
Lieberthal cites findings from U.S. intelligence based on internal discussions among crucial Chinese officials that these officials assume “very much a zero-sum approach” when discussing issues directly and indirectly related to U.S.-China relations.
Because these are privileged communications not intended for public consumption, U.S. officials interpret them to be “particularly revealing of China’s ‘real’ objectives,” Lieberthal writes.
In turn, U.S. law enforcement officials see an alarming increase in Chinese counter-espionage and cyberattacks against the United States that they have concluded are directed by the Chinese authorities to gather information of national interest.
At a seminar last week at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where Brookings funds a study center, Lieberthal said there was an increasing belief on both sides that the two countries would be “antagonistic in 15 years.”
That would mean major military expenditures by both countries to deter the other, and pushing other countries to take sides.
“The worst case is that this could lead to actual armed conflict, although that is by no means a necessary consequence of mutual antagonism,” Lieberthal said in an interview.