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As U.S. Power Wanes, China Considers Its New Place

A woman rides past the skyline of Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai, on Sept. 9.
Philippe Lopez
AFP/Getty Images
A woman rides past the skyline of Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai, on Sept. 9.

The West in recent years has been busy discussing how to handle China's rise. But in an odd symmetry, China has been debating how to respond to America's decline. That debate will influence how China responds when President Obama calls on China next week to play a more active role in global affairs.

Since the end of the Cold War, China has predicted a trend toward a world with "one superpower and many great powers." Very few mainstream commentators in China believe that their country is about to replace the U.S. as the world's sole superpower anytime soon.

But many observe a decline in U.S. power relative to China and other developing nations.

Wu Xinbo, deputy director of the American Studies Institute at Shanghai's Fudan University, argues that the U.S.'s waning power has led it to support a greater role for China in organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the G-20 group of industrialized nations.

"America is emphasizing that it seeks partnerships with other nations to resolve shared challenges," Wu says. "It is relinquishing some of its demands to dominate world affairs. This is to some extent an admission that it has no choice."

Wu sees the U.S. decline as temporary and reversible. He says the Obama administration's multilateral approach will help the U.S. bounce back and recoup some international support.

China Conflicted Over Its New Role

President Obama arrives Sunday for his first visit to China. He is expected to encourage China to play a larger role in a full spectrum of issues, from Afghanistan to global finance to climate change. The two sides are said to be hammering out a joint statement emphasizing U.S.-China economic interdependence and the importance of a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship."

China expert David Shambaugh, of George Washington University, says China may not be able to help out as much as Washington might like.

"I think it's absolutely right for the Americans to be pushing them," he says. "But we have to be careful not to expect too much, because China is conflicted over its desire to be a responsible major power, and it certainly lacks the capability in many areas to be one."

Xu Jin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the nation's top think tank, says the fate of the former Soviet Union convinced China not to aspire to global leadership or even Third World leadership. He says Beijing learned to avoid confrontation and arms races, while concentrating on economic development. He says that today, ordinary Chinese think their country has taken on enough international responsibility already.

"That's how my parents see it," Xu says. "They think we should mind our own business, and that foreign affairs have nothing to do with us. It reminds me very much of post-World War I American isolationism."

Xu adds that to many foreigners, China's view of itself as a developing nation seems thoroughly outdated. He points to a China-Africa summit held in Beijing in 2006.

"When our leaders said that China is a developing nation, some people in the audience laughed and said 'Beijing and Shanghai don't look like part of a developing nation to us,' " Xu recalls. "Those African leaders may have never been to China's poorer regions."

Ultimately, Self-Interest Will Require Action

Shambaugh of George Washington University adds that mistrust has lingered since the Cold War, when the U.S. tried to contain, encircle and subvert China. And Chinese, he says, have never forgotten this.

"Therefore, it makes them very wary to engage with the Americans, when the Americans say, 'Come be our partner on the world stage today.' They think, first of all, 'trap.' 'What are they trying to lure us into this time?' " he says.

But Fudan University's Wu says that what is behind China's growing participation in world affairs is not debates or attitudes, but its ever-expanding global interests, which for now are mostly economic.

"There are some things which China must do regardless of whether it wants to or not," Wu says. "For example, China's recent dispatching of naval ships to the Indian Ocean — China may not have wished to do such things in the past, but it has to now because there are more pirates and more Chinese ships that are threatened by them."

Wu says that if Washington wants to enlist China's help in global affairs, it should avoid treating China's rise as a threat.

Wu's advice to his own government is to try not to make the U.S. feel that China is aiming to replace it as a superpower. Instead, it should make the U.S. feel that China is willing to help defray the costs and shoulder the burdens of leadership.

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Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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