A popular narrative on U.S.-China relations assumes that both nations want to be the world’s No. 1 power. China expert Michael Pillsbury claims that China has a “secret strategy” to replace the United States as the leading global power. Harvard scholar Graham Allison argues that the two countries are heading toward a war neither wants — what he calls “Thucydides’s trap,” the deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one.
In my new book, I counter this view with an alternative perspective. Here are three reasons this bilateral relationship is more complex than a rising China and declining United States.
1. China doesn’t always seek to have a higher status
China has multiple identities: It is both an emerging economic superpower and a large developing country. Politically it is a rising power as well as an established great power, with a seat on the U.N. Security Council. China’s elites actively debate the country’s challenges and dilemmas on the global stage.
China continues to send these types of contradictory signals about its status and role in the 21st century. Yes, China struggles for more recognition as a rising great power. This is reflected in Xi’s demands for greater accommodation of what he considers to be China’s core interests in Taiwan, for instance.
But Beijing also worries about the over-recognition of its rising status and urges international audiences to recognize that China is still a relatively poor developing country. Some of the U.S. trade complaints about China revolve around this issue — the World Trade Organization’s “developing country status” means China has enjoyed special privileges and fewer commitments.
U.S. resentment against China is not always driven by China’s global ambition. Sometimes the problem seems to be the opposite: China does not upgrade its obligations and responsibilities and continues to assert its developing country status. The United States complains that China is an unfair trading partner with high tariffs and strict investment limitations, but Chinese officials claim China’s policies are largely justified because of China’s developing country status.
Since China has grown into the world’s second-largest economy, the nation’s “developing country status” has become more controversial — to build trade reciprocity, the United States urges China to open more of its market and reduce tariffs and government subsidies.
2. Chinese leaders face multiple audiences
China’s leadership has different incentives to emphasize different identities of China to various audiences. However, the range of domestic and international audiences also makes it difficult for China’s leaders to send signals exclusively to a targeted audience. The reality is that China looks assertive internationally but internally is fragile, with a deep sense of insecurity.
At times, this prompts Chinese leaders to demonstrate China’s status and prestige internationally to help secure their legitimacy domestically. Sometimes the Chinese government exaggerates its achievement for domestic purposes, but those exaggerations often lead to international backlash.
Recent U.S.-China tensions have prompted some Chinese elites to rein in “Chinese triumphalism.” Deng Pufang, the influential son of Chairman Deng Xiaoping, has urged the Chinese government to “keep a sober mind” and “know its place.” Some Chinese international relations scholars caution that China should manage its growing role and expanding interests prudently, avoiding confrontation with the West.
In fact, the Chinese government has begun to moderate its propaganda on the theme of China’s rise/America’s decline. The Chinese government took its nationalistic film “Amazing China” offline, for instance. This film celebrates and exaggerates China’s achievements in science and technology for domestic propaganda purposes.
China also has played down the significance of “Made in China 2025,” a strategic industrial plan criticized by the White House as another example of unfair Chinese economic practices.
In a December 2018 interview, Li Kexin, deputy chief of mission at China’s embassy in Washington, said the “nationalist bubble” promoted by China’s propaganda apparatus is partly to blame for the recent U.S. backlash against China.
3. Competition does not mean U.S.-China relations are a zero-sum game
The U.S.-China relationship has both competitive and cooperative elements, and the bilateral relationship is not always a zero-sum game. China’s rise is real, yet so are its limitations, and analysts tend to exaggerate China’s potential to replace the United States as a global leader.
Furthermore, framing the U.S.-China relationship as one characterized by rising and declining powers is inaccurate. Both China and the United States could be rising powers as long as they maintain economic growth while pursuing necessary reform. Even though the United States is a rich superpower, it still has to address long-term challenges in infrastructure building, health care and government spending.
In 2019 and beyond, domestic reform and economic growth will shape each country’s long-term trajectory. Even if the competition becomes more intense, these types of self-strengthening reforms — rather than open confrontation — offer a way forward for U.S.-China relations in the future.