Its biggest advantage is American stagnation
Chinese leaders stretching back to Deng Xiaoping have often thought in terms of decades. A decade encompasses two of China’s famous five-year plans, and it’s a long-enough period to notice real changes in a country’s trajectory.
As it happens, I spent time in China at both ends of the decade that just ended, first in 2010 and again recently. And I was left with one main conclusion: China has just enjoyed a very good decade.
Yes, it still has big problems, including the protests in Hong Kong. But by the standards that matter most to China’s leaders, the country made major gains during the 2010s. Its economy is more diversified. Its scientific community is more advanced, and its surveillance state more powerful. Its position in Asia is stronger. China, in short, has done substantially more to close the gap with the global power that it is chasing — the United States — than seemed likely a decade ago.
Many Americans, of course, understand that China is on the rise and are anxious about it. Yet I also returned from my trip thinking that this American anxiety tends to be misplaced in one crucial way: China is not preordained to supplant or even match the United States as the world’s leading power. China’s challenges are real, not just the protests in Hong Kong but also the dissent in Xinjiang and Tibet, the bloat in its state-run companies and the looming decline in its working-age population.
The No. 1 reason China has made such stark progress in geopolitical terms is that its rival just endured a bad decade by virtually every measure. While China takes more steps forward than backward, the United States is moving slowly in reverse.
Incomes, wealth and life expectancy in the United States have stagnated for much of the population, contributing to an angry national mood and exacerbating political divisions. The result is a semidysfunctional government that is eroding many of the country’s largest advantages over China. The United States is skimping on the investments like education, science and infrastructure that helped make it the world’s great power. It is also forfeiting the soft power that has been a core part of American pre-eminence.
President Trump plays a telling role here. More so than his predecessors, he has been willing to treat China as the strategic threat that it is. Yet he is confronting it so ham-handedly as to strengthen China.
Instead of building a coalition to manage its rise — including the Asian nations in China’s shadow — Trump is alienating allies. Instead of celebrating democracy as an alternative to Chinese authoritarianism, he is denigrating the rule of law at home and cozying up to dictators abroad. Trump, as Keyu Jin, a Chinese economist at the London School of Economics, says, is “a strategic gift” for China.
The recent trade spat is an example. The Trump administration was right to take a tougher line. But after imposing unilateral sanctions, Trump then accepted a truce that did not do much to address the core problems, like China’s corporate subsidies.
The current version of the United States doesn’t seem to know quite what it is — global democratic leader or parochial self-protector — and the confusion benefits China. After the Trump administration this year asked 61 countries to bar Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, the response was embarrassing: Only three have done so. President Emmanuel Macron of France now argues that Europe should position itself as a third global power between the United States and China, rather than what it has been — an American ally.
There is an unending debate among China experts about whether the country is weak or strong. The answer is that it’s both. But its direction is clear. China continues to become stronger.
Source: The New York Times