Many people confuse “the decline of U.S. hegemony” with “the decline of the United States,” believing that the United States is not in decline and U.S. hegemony is not in decline. According to the American definition, hegemony is a superpower that exercises some function of world government. Whichever country plays the role of a world government in an anarchic world is the hegemonic power. Hegemony is related to a country’s overall national power, but the two are not identical. Many people who think that “American hegemony is not in decline” are using the concept of comprehensive national power to define the concept of hegemony, confusing the two concepts. The United States is much stronger and has been stronger for much longer than its hegemony has lasted. Hegemonic decline and national decline are two different things, and this article discusses the decline of U.S. hegemony.
Americans also often confuse the decline of the United States with the decline of American hegemony. When Americans currently talk about the decline of the United States, they are actually talking about the decline of American hegemony. Americans have been worried about the decline of the United States since the Obama administration. “9/11” in 2001, the 2008 international financial crisis, and the 2020-2021 new corona epidemic crisis, are three dip/down time points. The U.S. policymakers are well aware that the decline of its hegemony is already underway.
The U.S. fear of decline of its own hegemony is combined with fear of China. No matter how much China explains that it will not replace U.S. hegemony, the U.S. remains adamant: you are now the “second” and the goal is to be the boss. The combination of the fear of losing its position as the boss and the fear of China becoming the boss is the fundamental reason for the major shift in U.S. strategy.
The implications of the U.S. strategic shift for China are twofold. First, we cannot underestimate the pressure and threat that this strategic reorientation poses to China. The most significant is the change in U.S. strategic positioning toward China. Washington has positioned China as the number one strategic competitor, the main strategic threat, and the biggest “revisionist” country in the international order. These three positions place China on a higher level than it has ever been before in history. They will use major strategic resources to contain China, and this will be a long-term strategic objective.
Against this backdrop, the U.S.-China relationship has naturally undergone a qualitative change; the relationship since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979, and since Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in the early 1990s cannot be compared to the current and future U.S.-China relationship. Our strategy toward the U.S. hitherto is no longer sufficient to deal with the U.S.’s change of strategy toward us. Many well meaning people are not yet prepared accordingly for the possible U.S. means of siege and strike against us. Nonetheless, we must speak of a peaceful rise and adhere to the path of peaceful development, while being fully prepared for the extreme behavior of anti-China forces in the U.S.
The characteristics of strategic competition between China and the United States have changed fundamentally. This strategic competition is a 360 degree comprehensive competition in all fields, including political, economic, military, cultural, and social. In official U.S. parlance, it is “whole-of-government,” meaning that every branch of the U.S. government must compete with China. At the same time, it is institutional competition, which is related to the question of legitimacy of U.S. hegemony. We must have a clear understanding of these changes in the nature of U.S.-China competition and be sufficiently prepared in order to gain a favorable position in the competition and take the initiative strategically.
The Biden administration has divided the U.S.-China relationship into three modes: competition, confrontation, and cooperation. The Americans know very well that competition is the first, and if competition appears to be unfavorable to the United States, they will not hesitate to move toward confrontation. Cooperation is secondary and in the third place; it is subordinate to competition. Cooperation is a means of competition as, for example, climate cooperation. The Chinese side has repeatedly called on the United States to cooperate against the epidemic, which is the only option for human security. However, the U.S. side insists on not cooperating, and starts “tracing the source of blame” to China, trying to use it to whip a new wave of anti-China sentiment.
As a result, a new focus of competition has emerged between China and the United States. For example, the “small yard, high wall” strategy targeting China’s high-technology sector is an attempt to choke off China’s supply chain for access to high-technology. Another example is the “Blue Dot” and “B3W” infrastructure programs launched by the U.S. in response to the “One Belt, One Road”. Interestingly, these programs have a value standards orientation, but are without adequate financial investment. One is to limit China’s reach in the field of technology, and the other is to lock China’s breadth in the field of infrastructure, both of which reveal weaknesses of the declining U.S. hegemony.
As hegemony declines, the U.S. competition with China is increasingly dependent on third-party involvement, namely the creation of a “united anti-China front” that is larger than the Western allied system. This term was used by the United States five years ago, and it is now being implemented. Washington’s strategy is to use all countries that are at odds with China to focus its efforts on China. The recent Biden’s trip to Europe concentrates on the U.S. intentions and behavior. The result is still a pie in the sky and a thirst for plums. In the background of the decline of U.S. hegemony, the “anti-China united front” is unlikely to succeed. Even Campbell had to admit that the United States could not win a new Cold War.
The strategic competition between China and the United States is ultimately a competition between the domestic governance capabilities of two countries. Both China and the United States are trying to solve their own internal problems better, and are, at the same time, anxious to know whether the other side can solve its own problems. This is where external competition transmigrates into internal competition and becomes a very challenging issue. Realizing that it cannot solve its own problems, the U.S. can only do its best to transform China’s internal problems into a tool for strategic competition between China and the U.S. As a result, U.S. moves to interfere in China’s internal affairs will tend to become more intense, and we have to take full measure of this.
What does the decline of U.S. hegemony mean for us? For one thing, the international system and global governance will undergo profound changes. The United States can no longer take on so many global obligations, it will abandon many old areas, and in many new areas the United States is on the same starting line as China. These old and new areas of global governance, where the U.S. loses sight of the other, exist as some sort of opportunity for China.
The second is the rejig of the global economy. Although the U.S. is still the “boss,” its share will decline further and China’s share will rise further, catching up with the U.S. GDP in less time than originally expected. If you add in the exchange rate factor, this time will be shorter. Currently, 25% of the world’s incremental growth comes from China; if China’s economy reaches the same level as the U.S., then 40% of the world’s incremental growth will come from China. This is our biggest trump card, because the total amount and incremental volume will determine that many countries are not willing to be enemies of China, and even less willing to follow the US and China in a showdown. The “anti-China united front” will be more fragmented.
Thirdly, the international status of the dollar is declining and will be shaken. Once the status of the dollar is shaken, it will be a crisis for China, because we have huge dollar assets. But this is also an opportunity, the world monetary system will stand restructured. The US is already behind China in terms of scale and technology of digital currency, which is another opportunity.
The fourth is the restructuring of the technology chain, industry chain, supply chain, capital chain, etc. The epidemic in particular has greatly accelerated the reordering of these chains. We were worried that they would withdraw from China and return to the U.S., but now it turns out they can’t and won’t. The center of gravity of the international industrial chain is still moving towards China.
(The author is Vice President of the China Society of International Relations and Distinguished Professor of Fudan University)