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Foreign Policy

Keep a Cool Head about American Strategic Anxiety

Jul 13 , 2016
  • He Yafei

    former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Recently the US Secretary of Defense talked about South China Sea in extremely aggressive language against China. It reminds us of the endless “China-bashing” by candidates of both Republican and Democratic parties in election campaigns. All this unsolicited tough talk about China by political figures in the US shows that the American “Strategic Anxiety” about a rising China has been deepened.

The ailment of strategic anxiety about China comes from misperception and misjudgment by the US of China’s strategic intentions with her growing economic power and pace of military modernization.

The restlessness on the part of the US arises from strategic anxiety that surfaced during the Cold War with fierce rivalry from the former USSR and again in the 1970s and 1980s when the Japanese economy grew fast and furious. so much so that it triggered panic in Washington and in American business circles.

Yet today American strategic anxiety certainly runs deeper and gets its elites more agitated than ever, because China in their eyes represents the rising power that could possibly overtake the US as the leading power of the world. The American reaction arising from this anxiety is therefore stronger and more wide-ranging, and it will impact US policy toward China as the winning candidate enters the White House early next year.

The strategic anxiety about a rising China has found expressions in the following ways:

First, American elites suffer from “churning stomachs” and growing frustration as they witness the decline and loss of credibility of Neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, China’s success story both in its political system and economic growth has found resonance and applause in many parts of the world today.

That worries those elites a great deal as they lament the inability of the US political system to produce outstanding leaders and find solutions to major challenges. In hard power, the US still commands superiority, but its soft power effectiveness is being undermined by its own actions, which deeply disturbs the American establishment.

Second, the psychological shock coming from the often-cited prediction that “China’s economy will soon surpass that of the US” reverberates to an alarming level. In other words, the dominant position the US has enjoyed in the global system for over a hundred years is becoming shaky, which upsets American elites.

China has a population over four times that of the US, with an average GDP growth rate close to 10% for three decades. Even as China now enters “the New Normal”, its GDP still grows at 6.8% a year. Should that trend continue, China’s GDP will no doubt overtake that of the US.

But everyone knows GDP is not everything. There is a new measurement of overall power of nations constructed by the UN experts called “Inclusive Wealth” composed of three parts, namely, manufactured capital, human capital and natural capital. By that measurement, the US has $144 trillion while China has only $32 trillion.

Even though American elites understand all this, they still are very sensitive to any possibility that the US “leadership position” could somehow be undermined by a rising China. Why? The answer is simple: If China is fast catching up with the US, the latter by necessity has to share that power and readjust the balance of power in international relations and in global governance. The US then must learn to deal with “a different China” which makes Washington elites uncomfortable, to say the least.

Third, the above perception of China in Washington’s eyes produces “uncertainty” in US-China relations, which over the last decade or so has nudged politicians within the Washington Beltway to move the US policy on China from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity”.

Currently, the debate on China is still going on unabated in the States and the election year fever has undoubtedly colored and pushed the debate to both extremes. The core question is, “How do we deal with a different and stronger China?”

The answers to the “how” question can be divided into three possibilities: 1) maintain the status quo while continuing to observe cool-headedly; 2) reach deals with China based on a “Grand Bargain” through serious negotiation on issues ranging from economic cooperation, Afghanistan, Taiwan, the DPRK and its nuclear problem and South China Sea, etc.; 3) exert strong pressure on China with containment and other aggressive actions forcing it to accept American global leadership.

The vacillation among the three options tells us a lot about “the two-hands policy” towards China that has been in effect since 1979, when two nations established diplomatic ties. It can be safely said that as long as the strategic anxiety remains, the vacillation in American policy on China will not quickly disappear.

We often hear veteran diplomats like Brent Scowcraft and Henry Kissinger describing the US-China relationship as “complex” or “very complex”. Hillary Clinton, in her book “Hard Choices”, says that US-China relations are entering unknown waters. With complexity comes anxiety and the latter breeds uncertainty and suspicion.

This complexity in our bilateral relationship and the accompanying strategic anxiety in the US will certainly test the wisdom and tenacity of both nations to move the relationship forward.

We need to be cool-headed about that anxiety. It will be of great help in reducing American strategic anxiety if two nations engage in earnest to build the new type of big-power relationship proposed by President Xi Jinping, based on the principle of “no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation”.

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