The irony of all of this is that China doesn’t want US power to fall away rapidly—it wants the United States to remain a vital, global force with which China has deep structural relations.
The reason? China wants to free-ride on US global power because it fears its own internal fragility. China knows that it’s not ready to carry the burden of global stability and isn’t ready to position itself as a provider of global public goods while it’s still in a mode of highly concentrated neo-mercantilist self interest.
China fears the Obama administration is weak, very weak—and that the world will keep provoking the United States to see where its power begins and ends. In fact, China is doing the same thing—testing US resolve, including rejecting six times US-Republic of Korea joint military exercises that will now go on despite Chinese objections (which they have themselves recently softened).
China has also rebuked the Obama administration for arranging a meeting with the Dalai Lama and protested vehemently over arms sales to Taiwan, a move that prompted it to suspend military-to-military exchanges and block a trip to China planned by Defense Secretary Gates. In the words of both a senior US interlocutor with the Chinese government and a senior Chinese official, ‘China is poking the US to see how America will respond.’
The impression in Beijing is that the United States is desperate for China’s support and fears upending a relationship it badly needs. The reality, according to both Chinese and informed foreign expatriate voices here is that while China will escalate to near breaking point a dispute of some sort, ultimately China will respect resolve and won’t break the compact of cooperation.
The Chinese experience is that the US regularly blinks first—and works harder for Chinese attention than China is willing to work for US attention. This gives it an edge in the Sino-American relationship that many in the Chinese government actually aren’t particularly comfortable with. They want a stronger United States, one with vision and one that’s willing to continue to set the terms of the global order that China is prospering in.
Unfortunately, what they see instead is a desperate country that swings between appeasement of China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical appetite on one side, and fear of China and talk about containing or punishing or imposing surcharges on it on the other.
It’s ironic then that these two extremes, which China believes demonstrate the United States is forfeiting its dominance in the international system, validate China’s sense of importance and evolving swagger, one which many in Beijing actually believe is a ‘fragile swagger’ that’s not yet ready for primetime.
Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note and is editor-at-large of Talking Points Memo. He also directs the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank.