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Foreign Policy

Blind Optimism, America’s Mistake

Feb 28, 2023
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

U.S. President Joe Biden has just delivered his second State of the Union address focusing on such issues as the economy, society, partisanship and foreign relations. He heaped praises on his administration’s performance over the past two years, enumerating achievements in such broad public welfare fields as lawmaking, job creation, inflation and gun control.

It is worthy of notice that Biden brought obvious optimistic language to the speech. Beyond hyping his own accomplishments, he also conveyed conspicuously optimistic views about the United States and its positions of strength. For instance, he started the speech with America’s “story of progress and resilience” and ended with the “strong soul of the nation,” declaring: “We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it” and “I have never been more optimistic about the future of America.”

When it came to China, Biden claimed, “Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world.” Facing the many structural conundrums in the U.S. and the American public’s radically diverse views about their country’s future, Biden’s words sound blindly optimistic. Against the backdrop of a new transitional period for China-U.S. relations, how such a mindset might affect America’s China policy certainly deserves deliberation.

For a long time, there have been two opposing perceptions of China among American elites, including those in political and strategic circles. One assumes China constitutes challenges for U.S. national interests or security in various fields — i.e. the “China threat” theory, which culminated in the Biden administration’s claim that China is the only country capable of challenging the U.S. economically, diplomatically, militarily and technologically. The other holds that China faces many intractable problems, and its development will inevitably suffer frustrations — i.e. the “China collapse” or “China decline” theories. These have been evident in the obsession with Chinese economic recession and demographic difficulties over the past two years.

The blind optimism Biden displayed in his State of the Union address over U.S. competition with China was closely related in popularity with “China decline” assumptions in the U.S. This is both an outcome of some Americans overestimating their country’s economic condition based on regional indices and offensives to bad-mouth China in the media. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, theories about a China collapse are easily debunked by the reality of China’s progress.

Yet such blind optimism may still exert some influence on America’s China policy. On one hand, such a mindset very likely will foster U.S. confidence in dealing with China “from a position of strength.” In the process of interaction between the two countries’ corresponding institutions, U.S. bullying may become even more rampant, and they could become even more reckless in suppressing China in various realms.

The abusive use of force by the U.S. in disregard of international conventions and Chinese representations surrounding the latest balloon issue may be a realistic embodiment of the mindset. On the other hand, such blind optimism may also influence the long-term layout of U.S. China strategy.

One popular assumption has it that the Biden administration will plan its competition with China from a long-game perspective. However, such blind optimism may add fuel to attempts by anti-China elements in the U.S. to defeat China competitively in a shorter time. The so-called “critical decade” the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance hyped up, as well as the idea that the U.S. should focus on the next few years and plan its China strategy as a “strategic sprint,” may have all originated from such blind optimism.

Blind optimism may make the Biden administration even more confident about the effectiveness of its current China strategy, cause it to sustain its existing competitive tactics, synchronize allies’ and partners’ perceptions of China and mount pressures in a coordinated manner. Hawkish anti-China forces in the U.S. may make even more misjudgments about prospects for the two countries’ development and resort to even more dangerous measures to crash China as soon as possible. Therefore, the possibility of new crisis events arising in the near term can’t be excluded.

From an even more macro perspective, the apparently contradictory coexistence of the “China threat” and “China collapse” theories in the U.S. reflects the accumulation of negative feelings about China in different periods and fields, which generally prevent the U.S. from seeing China as it is, and keep bilateral ties from getting back onto the normal track in a more timely manner.

Historically, the U.S. has repeatedly made the wrong choices on significant strategic matters because of blind optimism, resulting in the country embarking on a mistaken course and people paying a heavy price. If America’s current misjudgments about itself are coupled with its hostility against China in bilateral competition, it may sink into a fresh strategic quagmire leading to greater disasters. The fact that both China and the U.S. have enjoyed success means that opportunities abound. The correct path forward is common prosperity.

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