Viewpoint: China's hubris colours US relations

By Joseph Nye
Professor at Harvard University

  • Published
US and Chinese flags are seen at a Chinese new year merchandising market in downtown Shanghai
Image caption,
One Chinese scholar dated the year 2000 as the peak of American power

When Barack Obama became US president, one of his top foreign policy priorities was to improve relations with China. Yet on the eve of President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, US-China relations are worse, rather than better.

Administration officials feel their efforts to reach out to China have been rebuffed.

Ironically, in 2007, President Hu Jintao had told the 17th Congress of the Communist Party that China needed to invest more in its soft, or attractive, power.

From the point of view of a country that was making enormous strides in economic and military power, this was a smart strategy.

By accompanying the rise of its hard economic and military power with efforts to make itself more attractive, China aimed to reduce the fear and tendencies to balance Chinese power that might otherwise grow among its neighbours.

But China's performance has been just the opposite, and China has had a bad year and a half in foreign policy.

Rising nationalism

For years, China had followed the advice of Deng Xiaoping to keep a low profile.

However, with its successful economic recovery from the recession, China passed Japan as the world's second largest economy, and America's slow recovery led many Chinese to mistakenly conclude that the United States was in decline.

Image caption,
US-China relations have been a focus of Mr Obama's presidency

Given such beliefs, and with rising nationalism in China as it prepares for the transition of power to the fifth generation of leaders in 2012, many in China pressed for a more assertive foreign policy.

In 2009, China was justly proud of its success in managing to emerge from the world recession with a high 10% rate of economic growth.

But many Chinese believed that this represented a shift in the world balance of power, and that China should be less deferential to other countries, including the US.

Chinese scholars began writing about the decline of the US. One dated the year 2000 as the peak of American power.

"People are now looking down on the West, from leadership circles, to academia, to everyday folks," said Professor Kang Xiaoguang of Renmin University.

This Chinese view is seriously mistaken and China is unlikely to equal American economic, military or soft power for decades to come.

Nonetheless, this over-confidence in power assessment (combined with insecurity in domestic affairs) led to more assertive Chinese foreign policy behaviour in the last two years.

China miscalculated by deviating from the smart strategy of a rising power and violating the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping who advised that China should proceed cautiously and "skilfully keep a low profile".

But perceptions matter, even when they are wrong. China's new attitudes alienated the Obama administration.

China stage-managed President Obama's trip to Beijing in November 2009 in a heavy-handed way; it over-reacted to Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the administration's long-expected and relatively modest arms sales to Taiwan.

When asked why they reacted so strongly to things they had accepted in the past, some Chinese responded, "because we were weaker then".

Obama administration officials began to believe that efforts at co-operation or conciliation would be interpreted by the Chinese as proof that the US was in decline.

Alienation and irritation

China's new assertiveness affected its relations with other countries as well.

Image caption,
China's leaders may draw back from what many in the region see as an overly assertive posture

Its policies in the South China Sea created fear among the Asean nations; and its over-reaction to Japan's actions after a ship collision near the Senkaku Islands put an end to the Democratic Party of Japan's hopes for a closer relationship with China. Instead, the Kan administration reaffirmed the American alliance.

Beijing alienated South Korea by failing to criticise North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island; irritated India over border and passport issues; and embarrassed itself in Europe and elsewhere by over-reacting to the Nobel Peace Prize granted to the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.

How will these issues play out in the coming year?

It is likely that China's leaders will draw back somewhat from the overly assertive posture that has proven so costly.

President Hu Jintao's stated desire to co-operate on terrorism, non-proliferation and clean energy will help to lead to a reduction of tensions, but powerful domestic interest groups in the export industries and in the People's Liberation Army will limit economic or naval co-operation.

And most important, given the nationalism that one sees on the blogosphere in China, it will be difficult for Chinese top leaders to change their policies too dramatically.

Mr Hu's state visit will help improve matters, but the relationship will remain difficult as long as the Chinese suffer from hubris based on a mistaken belief in American decline.

Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power. He was formerly US Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs and chairman of the National Intelligence Council.