U.S.-China Relationship: A shift in Perceptions of Power

A new op-ed by distinguished scholar and former diplomat Joseph S. Nye Jr., whose most influential work has been on theorizing about soft power, tackles the subject of U.S.-China relations. Nye cautions that both Chinese and Americans have a tendency to overestimate China’s rise and America’s decline, which could result in greater competition when what is really needed is cooperation. From the Los Angeles Times:

A recent poll shows there are more Americans who believe China will be the dominant power in 20 years than believe the United States will retain that position. Some analysts go further and argue that China’s rise will result in a clash similar to that between a rising Germany and a hegemonic Britain that led to World War I a century ago.

One should be skeptical about such dire projections. China still has a long way to go to catch up in military, economic and soft-power resources. In contrast, by 1900, Germany had surpassed Britain. Even if Chinese gross domestic product passes that of the United States at some point in the 2020s, the two economies would not be equal. China would still have a vast underdeveloped countryside, and it would almost certainly have begun to face demographic problems and slowing economic growth. As some Chinese say, they fear they will grow old before growing rich. China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to America that the Kaiser’s Germany posed when it passed Britain.

But many Chinese do not see the world this way. They believe that the recession of 2008 represented a shift in the balance of world power, and that China should be less deferential to a declining United States. This overconfident power assessment has contributed to a more assertive Chinese in the last two years. The shift in perceptions seems to have emboldened the Chinese government, even though the judgment is wrong.

Given that China and the United States face global challenges such as financial stability, cyber security and climate change, the two countries have much to gain from working together. Unfortunately, faulty power assessments have created hubris among some Chinese, and unnecessary fear of decline among some Americans, and these shifts in perception make cooperation difficult. Any American compromise is read in Beijing as confirmation of American weakness. But with more realistic projections and policies, China and America need not repeat the disastrous experience of Germany and Britain a century ago.

It would be wise to heed his words.

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