Chinese Perceptions of U.S. Decline and Power

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 14

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) and President Barack Obama

For the past few years, the Western world has been abuzz with talk of China’s rise. Most statesmen, pundits and academics have concluded that China’s rise is inevitable, but as of yet there has been no consensus on the implications of China’s rise for the rest of the world.  While Westerners debate issues like whether and how China can be “molded” into becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international system, the Chinese have been quietly conducting a debate of their own.  After more than a decade of judging the international structure of power as characterized by “yi chao, duo qiang” (one superpower, many great powers) [1]—with a substantial gap between the United States and other major powers—Chinese scholars are debating whether U.S. power is now in decline and if multipolarity (duojihua)  is becoming a reality. A key precipitating factor is the global financial crisis, which has sown doubts in the minds of some Chinese experts about the staying power of U.S. hegemony in the international system.  

Chinese perceptions of American power are consequential. China’s assessment of the global structure of power is an important factor in Chinese foreign policy decision-making.  As long as Chinese leaders perceive a long-lasting American preeminence, averting confrontation with the United States is likely seen as the best option. If Beijing were to perceive the U.S. position as weakening, there could be fewer inhibitions for China to avoid challenging the United States where American and Chinese interests diverge.  Since the late-1990s, Beijing has judged the United States as firmly entrenched in the role of sole superpower.  As long as the comprehensive national power of China and the other major powers lagged far behind the United States, and the ability of China to forge coalitions to counterbalance U.S. power remained limited, Beijing concertedly avoided challenging U.S. interests around the world; for example, when the United States invaded Iraq.  Yet, China’s recent evaluation that the United States is overextended with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with a perceived U.S. weakness in the wake of the financial crisis, could imbue Chinese policy makers with the confidence to be more assertive on the international stage in ways that may be inconsistent with American interests.

The debate in China over a possible U.S. decline is not new, however. After the end of the Cold War, Chinese experts embarked on a rigorous examination of the new global environment that would emerge after the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe. At that time other rapidly expanding economies, especially Japan and Germany, were perceived as having become powerful U.S. competitors in high technology.  Some Chinese experts began to predict the emergence of a post-Cold War multipolar world order, a greater balance among major powers, resistance toward “Western values” and an increased emphasis worldwide on economic and diplomatic approaches as opposed to military might [2]. These predictions proved overly optimistic, however, and Beijing subsequently concluded that the United States would maintain its status as “sole superpower” for the next 15 to 20 years, if not longer [3].

Recent events, notably U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis, juxtaposed against China’s sustained economic growth, have rekindled the debate in China about the sustainability of a U.S.-dominated international structure and China’s role in that new structure of power. In particular, many Chinese experts are viewing the recent U.S.-led financial crisis as sounding the death knell for unfettered American economic and hard power predominance and the dawn of a more inclusive multipolar system in which the United States can no longer unilaterally dictate world events.

Signs that the debate has been rejuvenated surfaced in 2006 with a provocative newspaper article by Wang Yiwei, a young scholar at Shanghai’s Fudan University, who posed the question, “How can we prevent the USA from declining too quickly?”. The article, which suggested that a precipitous decline in U.S. power would harm Chinese investments, predicted the United States would soon fall to the status of a regional power rather than a global power because of its arrogance and imperial overreach and advised Washington to “learn to accept Chinese power on the world stage.” Wang’s article generated a tremendous response from readers and intellectuals, which spurred further debate within China about whether U.S. power was in decline [4].

After the onset of the financial crisis in the United States in 2008, which quickly reverberated globally, more articles appeared in Chinese newspapers positing a radical shift in the global structure of power.  In a May 18, 2009 article in China’s official state-run newspaper China Daily, Fu Mengzi, assistant president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, maintained that “the global financial crisis offers global leaders a chance to change the decades-old world political and economic orders. But a new order cannot be established until an effective multilateral mechanism to monitor globalization and countries’ actions comes into place. And such a mechanism can work successfully only if the old order gets a formal burial after extensive and effective consultations and cooperation among world leaders” [5].

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist for People’s Daily online, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, framed the argument more assertively in a February 2009 article by predicting an “unambiguous end to the U.S. unipolar system after the global financial crisis,” saying that in 2008, U.S. hegemony was “pushed to the brink of collapse as a result of its inherent structural contradictions and unbridled capitalist structure.” Li forecast that “in 2009, as a result of this decline, the international order will be reshuffled toward multipolarity with an emphasis on developing economies like China, Russia and Brazil” [6].

Li Hongmei and others highlight what they see as the main source of U.S. power decline: economics; and especially share of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  The IMF’s recently published figures on global GDP points out that in 2003, GDP in the United States accounted for 32 percent of the world total, while the total GDP of emerging economies accounted for 25 percent.  In 2008 however, the figures were reversed, with the total GDP of emerging economies at 32 percent and U.S. GDP at 25 percent of the world total respectively [7]. From Li’s perspective, the recent financial crisis portends a continuation of the downward trend for the United States.

Scholars such as Wu Xinbo, professor and associate dean of the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, and Zhang Liping, senior fellow and deputy director of Political Studies Section at the Institute of American Studies in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), highlight a major shift in U.S. soft power and legitimacy after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  According to Wu, the United States “lost its ‘lofty sentiments’ after it invaded Iraq and is feeling more ‘frustrated and lonely’ which will lead it to seek more cooperation with other big powers” [8].  Similarly, Zhang points to a diminution in U.S. soft power, a decrease in its ability to influence its allies, and diminished ability to get countries ‘on board’ with U.S. foreign policy initiatives after the invasion of Iraq—all signs that augur a decline in America’s legitimacy abroad [9].

Not all Chinese experts are in agreement, however, and some warn explicitly against drawing a premature conclusion that U.S. power is on the decline.  Notable among these voices is Wang Jisi, dean of Beijing University’s School of International Studies, who harshly criticizes Chinese analysts who view U.S. power as being in decline.  Wang argues, for example, that “there really is no reliable basis for saying at this point that the United States has experienced a setback from which it cannot recover.”  While acknowledging that the invasion of Iraq damaged U.S. soft power and legitimacy abroad, Wang maintains that he does not see any fundamental change to the global balance of power. “To date,” Wang says, “no country has been able to constitute a comprehensive challenge to the United States, and the current international power structure of ‘one superpower and many great powers’ will continue for the foreseeable future.” Wang also advises China’s leaders to “avoid becoming embroiled in the central maelstrom of world politics and concentrate on managing its own affairs first” [10].

Xu Jin, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of World Economics and Politics, and Zhu Feng, director of the International Security Program in the School of International Studies at Peking University, insist that the financial crisis “will not bring substantive changes to the international pattern of ‘one superpower and many great powers.’” Xu anticipates that the financial disparity between the United States and other powers will narrow as a result of the financial crisis, possibly leading to a decline in U.S. economic hegemony.  Yet, he concludes that any harm the financial crisis inflicts on the United States will have limited damage on its overall global position, since economic prowess is only one of the “many elements of U.S. comprehensive power” [11]. Zhu adds that “even if America takes a hit with the financial crisis, the large gap between America and world in economic terms is so large, and other markets are so firmly enmeshed with the U.S., that no fundamental shift will occur to America’s relative position in the world” [12].

Echoing this view is Liu Jianfei, professor and associate director of the International Strategy Institute at the Communist Party Central School.  In a recent issue of Sousuo yu Zhengming, a periodical published by the Shanghai Social Science Association, Liu presents a comprehensive analysis of the post-financial crisis world and cautions China against coming to premature conclusions about a rapid decline in U.S. overall power.  “The financial crisis will undoubtedly weaken U.S. hard power, but it might end up affecting the economies of other countries even more,” says Liu.  “The overall negative influence affecting the power of American hegemony—in military, economic and soft power terms—will remain limited” [13].

Liu Jianfei sees U.S. influence as indispensable in shaping a new world order and cautions China about taking “too high a profile,” or “seeking to be a leader” of the international system.  “China still needs more time to develop and open up to the outside world,” he says.  “Many are calling for China to be the new leader in the new world order, but we need to continue down the road of reform and development and not adopt hegemonic tendencies.  China also needs the cooperation and trade of the United States and other Western countries in order to succeed” [14].

What emerges is a lively debate in China about whether the international system is undergoing a fundamental shift that heralds the decline of U.S. power.  As evidenced by the wide range of opinions, experts are far from reaching agreement on the core question of whether the United States is in decline.  The vast majority maintains that the prevailing international structure of power will not last; it eventually will give way to a multipolar era in which China and other emerging economies have an increasing say about issues of global importance.  At the same time, many experts also caution that the transition to multipolarity will be a prolonged process, and that for the foreseeable future the United States will maintain its position at the helm of the international structure of power.  Only a minority of experts view the United States as already in decline and the world on the cusp of becoming truly multipolar.

Conspicuously absent from the debate is discussion of how a multipolar system would operate and what role China would play in the new world order.  Would a more equal power distribution among major powers result in greater competition or cooperation, in balancing or bandwagoning, for example?  If future international developments persuade Chinese leaders that the United States is in decline and that a multipolar world has arrived, Chinese experts will need to more closely examine such questions.  

An emerging multipolar world could prompt Beijing to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and military posture, but could also provide incentives for China to be cooperative.  Tensions over territorial claims with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan continue to simmer, and a perceived power vacuum in the area could embolden China to assert greater influence over these disputed islands.  Furthermore, the potential for China to adopt coercive policies against Taiwan is an ever-present danger looming over U.S.-China relations.  Yet, Beijing might instead see its interests best served by working cooperatively with the other major powers to ensure a soft landing as the world transitions from “one superpower, many major powers” to a new multipolar pattern.  Significant disincentives will exist to a revisionist shift in China’s foreign and defense policies.  Assertiveness or aggression by China would likely cause the other major powers to band together to counter the emergent Chinese threat.  Unless China perceives a threat to its vital interests (such as a declaration of independence by Taiwan), Beijing may see strong incentives to act cautiously.  The time may then come for China to discard Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “keep a low profile,” and become the “responsible stakeholder” that the world hopes for rather than the next global hegemon.


1.The first mention of “yi chao duo qiang” that the authors were able to find was by Liao Yonghe, “The Right and Wrong of the ‘America in Decline’ Theory,” Dangdai Shijie, 1995 Vol. 3.  See also Michael Pillsbury’s China Debates the Future Security Environment, National Defense University Press, January 2000.
2.Pillsbury, Michael, “China’s Perceptions of the USA: The View from Open Sources,” Testimony prepared for U.S.-China Security and Economic Review Commission, Oct. 19, 2001.
3.For more on this reassessment, see Finkelstein, David M, China Reconsiders Its National Security: The Great Peace and Development Debate of 1999, Project Asia – CNA Corporation, Dec. 2000.
4.Wang Yiwei, “How can we prevent the USA from declining too quickly?” Global Times Online, Aug. 12, 2006.
5.Fu Mengzi, “Old Order Should Yield Place to New,” Peoples Daily Online, May 18th, 2009.
6.Li Hongmei, “U.S. Hegemony Ends, Era of Global Multipolarity Begins,” Peoples Daily Online, Feb. 24, 2009, Open Source Center (OSC), CPP20090224701001.
8.Wu Xinbo, “China Rise Startles U.S. into Sobriety,” Global Times, Dec. 23, 2007*.
9.Zhang Liping, “Is America in Decline after 9/11?” Shijie Zhishi, July 2007, Vol. 21*.
10.Wang Jisi, “Roundtable on U.S.-China Relations,” Nanfeng Chuang, Oct. 20, 2008.
11.Xu Jin, “The Financial Crisis Will Not Upset the ‘One Superpower and Many Powers’ Structure,” Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi; Dec. 14, 2008, OSC, CPP20090223671003.
12.Zhu Feng, “The Obama Administration Foreign Policy: Afterthoughts on our Fieldwork in America,” International and Strategic Studies Report, Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University, March 20, 2009.*
13.Liu Jianfei, “Chinese Foreign Strategy in Wake of the Financial Crisis,” Sousuo yu Zhengming; May 2009, Vol. 3*.

*  (Translated from Chinese by authors)