As US-China 'Strategic Distrust' Grows, US Power Remains by Lucas Chan

Last week, the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing jointly published a report stating that underneath the rhetoric of mutual cooperation, US and Chinese policymakers view each other with deep mistrust and apprehension. The report, titled, “Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust,” argues that the Chinese view the bilateral relationship as a zero-sum game between a declining US superpower and rising China, which, sooner or later, will surpass the US as the world's largest economy. But by analyzing the US-China relationship from an economic, political and military standpoint, one can see a more positive future for the US.

First, on an economic level, there are a number of reasons why China is not going to take over as the world’s economic leader in the near future:

  • There is no indication that Chinese growth is going to increase at the same high rate for a prolonged period of time. The government has been controversially artificially suppressing the value of the yuan to the US dollar in recent years, and now faces falling producer prices, signaling a slowing economy. In addition, most of China's new wealth is concentrated in the hands of the elite and upper middle class, and the growing income disparity has real implications for China's future economic growth.
  • The Chinese government still heavily controls the Chinese economy in two crucial ways: First, projects are heavily reliant on government support to get off the ground. This discourages small business growth, whereas US government policy, as evidenced by the JOBS Act, aims to assist that vital sector of the economy. Second, the government has major stakes in a variety of top Chinese industries, and private ownership still can only happen with the government’s consent. The government's strong influence hampers aggregate business development.
  • Earlier feverish investment in Chinese markets has cooled; venture capitalists are now looking at other BRIC (Brazil, Russia and India) countries, and to a lesser but growing extent, CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) countries as new, untapped markets. China does not command the same economic attention that it used to.
  • The best and smartest Chinese students still prioritize studying in the US and either staying in the US or working for US companies in China. As a result, China is experiencing a net loss in talent.

On the political side, the Chinese are making headway as major players in the international political system, but they will not be able to wield the same political power as the US for the following reasons:

  • The Chinese have the upper hand in terms of executing large projects quickly and efficiently because one-party rule allows the Party to disregard special interest groups and lean on the strength of the central government. Yet the younger generation is increasingly liberal and skeptical about the Chinese political system.
  • The Chinese government historically invokes the threat of external forces to rile up the Chinese population in order to hide internal problems. Picking fights with the Japanese, most recently over territorial disputes, is a surefire way to incite nationalist fervor and mask domestic issues. But as Chinese youth become increasingly globalized, this model for control will be unsustainable.
  • The Chinese cannot expect to dominate world politics if they are unable to quell domestic instability. Questions on Tibet in the Southwest, Taiwan in the East, and the Uighur minority in the West are all unanswered, and the root cause of many ethnic minority flare-ups does not have an easy solution.
  • China has too much to handle between its domestic concerns and regional politics to be able to come close to matching US capacity as a world power and leader of the most important multinational institutions anytime in the near future.

Finally, the Chinese military is more than capable of establishing China as the predominant regional power in East Asia within two decades. However, China's military is not capable of shouldering the same responsibilities that the US government asks its military to carry around the world. The US is still far ahead of its China in terms of spending, technological prowess, and strategic focus.

According to the April 7th edition of The Economist, US defense spending is still more than 450 percent that of China’s. China’s military spending is projected to overtake the US after 2035, which only accounts for matching yearly amounts of spending as opposed to any aggregate figure.

But where China is most dangerous is with its military intentions. It is unclear whether China seeks to expand to more than a regional power, and as a regional power—whether it would actively engage in conflict with its nearby rivals, or pursue a strategy of diplomacy and keep its military as a deterrent warning powers like the US to stay out.

Yet even without knowing exactly what China's intentions may be, the US can remain confident that it can easily outmatch the Chinese in any conflict on the horizon.

Lucas Chan is a freshman in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and editorial assistance for the Georgetown Journal's online content.