A has-been power in decline? China should not bet against the US

THE growing tensions between China and the United States have raised concerns that the two nations are sliding into a new cold war.

In Washington, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, military hawks and economic protectionists are pressing the Biden administration to embrace a policy centring on China as America's main challenge to its global supremacy as well to its liberal-democratic values. Viewing China as an enemy and pushing for confrontation could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as critics have pointed out. Instead, proposed are more effective and less dangerous ways to manage the competition in the high-tech arena or the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But it would be wrong to place the entire responsibility for the growing strains in the relationship between China and the US on the shoulders of warmongering officials and lawmakers in Washington.

One of the main reasons that China-bashing Republicans and Democrats have gained so much political momentum in recent years is the growing influence of anti-Western nationalists in Beijing, with their so-called "wolf warrior diplomacy" as well as policy moves and statements that run contrary to the long-time Chinese approach of trying to reach accommodation with the West.

The Chinese government insists that the US does not have the rights of criticise its policies towards Hong Kong or the Muslim Uighur minority. But it should recognise that embracing a more aggressive posture on this and other issues, including the future political status of Taiwan, is bound to ignite opposition in the West and play into the hands of those who seek to accelerate the confrontation with Beijing.

It sometimes seems that when it comes to their assessment of the US, Chinese nationalists hold a mirror image of the American nationalists' perception of China as a rising global power that aims to displace the US as the reigning superpower.

Indeed, there is a growing sense that some members of the political and intellectual elites in China may be misinterpreting the impact of the current political chaos, cultural turmoil and economic downturn in the US, including the mishandling of the response to Covid-19 and the recent assault on the US Capitol as indications that America is a global empire in decline, a has-been power that is losing its military and economic dominance.

This kind of misreading of America's problems may be boosting Chinese nationalist aspirations and leading members of the leadership in Beijing to conclude that it can and should become more assertive - over Taiwan, for example.

But based on any interpretation of American history, one has to recognise that the US - with its stable constitutional order, its open and dynamic economy, and its never-ending supply of immigrants - has always had the ability to regenerate itself.

After its defeat in the Vietnam War, its economy devastated by stagflation and with the Soviet Union on the march, everyone was saying that the US was finished. That era ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a growing American economy driven by Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

In particular, Chinese elites should recall what Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto said after the Japanese military's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when the US was recovering from the Great Depression: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."


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