Needless to say, the Sino-U.S. relationship is one of the most important yet complicated bilateral relationships in the world today. This explains why Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang’s recent comments on Sino-U.S. relations have stirred up a debate online (here and here). Wang Yang stated that China “[has] neither the ability nor the intent to challenge the United States.” Partly because it is rare for a senior Chinese leader to make such soft remarks with regard to Sino-U.S. relations and partly because Wang’s remarks are seemingly inconsistent with China’s recent assertive foreign policies, there has been a fierce debate about the true meaning of Wang’s remarks in the United States. Most American analysts, however, are skeptical toward Wang’s conciliatory remarks and continue to believe that China’s ultimate aim is to establish a China-centric order in Asia at the expense of the U.S. influence in Asia. In other words, China seeks to replace the U.S. as the new global hegemon.
The reactions from the U.S. side, again, reveal the deep mistrust with regard to China’s long term goals. But such skepticism is misguided and even dangerous to Asia’s peace and stability if left uncorrected. Why? Because Wang Yang was sincere when he said that China does not have the capabilities and desires to challenge the United States. The evidence of his sincerity is apparent.
First let us look at China’s capabilities, which need to be especially formidable if China wants to challenge the United States. Although China’s comprehensive capabilities have been growing rapidly for the past three decades, almost all analysts inside and outside of China agree that there is still a huge gap between China and the U.S. in terms of comprehensive capabilities, particularly when the U.S. is far ahead of China in military and technological realms. China’s economy might have already passed the U.S. economy as the largest one in 2014, but the quality of China’s economy still remains a major weakness for Beijing. Thus, it would be a serious mistake for China to challenge the U.S. directly given the wide gap of capabilities between the two. Even if one day China’s comprehensive capabilities catch up with the United States, it would still be a huge mistake for China to challenge the U.S. because by then the two economies would be much more closely interconnected, creating a situation of mutual dependence benefiting both countries.
Besides limited capabilities, China also has limited ambitions which have not been properly understood by many U.S. analysts. It is true that China’s grand strategy is to realize the “China dream” — a dream that will bring wealth, glory, and power to China again — but this, by no means, suggests that China wants to become a hegemon in Asia, or to create a Sino-centric tributary system around which all smaller states must obey China’s orders. Perhaps these perceptions exist in the United States because many U.S. analysts have unconsciously let ultra-realist thinking slip into their minds, thereby believing that states are constantly engaged in the ruthless pursuit of power and influence. But the structure of international politics has fundamentally changed since the end of the Cold War, thus rendering any serious possibility of world hegemony ineffective or even impossible. In essence, the costs of hegemony outweigh the benefits of hegemony in this new era of international politics, thanks to rising nationalism, nuclear weapons, and increasing economic interdependence between major powers. The Chinese leaders understand this new and changed structure of international politics and based on their assessments, they have decided not to seek hegemony, which is a losing business in this new era.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is still obsessed with the concept (or illusion) of hegemony, as Simon Reich and Richard Ned Lebow have pointed out recently. The hegemony mentality is precisely the reason why the United States has declined (slowly) in the post-Cold War era. Wrongly believing that a stable global order needs U.S. hegemony, American leaders have adopted a grand strategy of liberal interventionism, which has only caused self-inflicted wounds for the U.S. economy and its global status. The tragedy, however, is that within U.S. elite circles, this misperception about U.S. hegemony (here and here) sticks and is unlikely to go away for a long time barring a major failure or crisis.
At the end of the day, our world can survive and prosper without a hegemon, regardless of whether the hegemon is American or Chinese. The sooner American leaders understand this point and believe Chinese leaders’ words, the higher the chances of peace and stability worldwide.