Why China Cheered American Relative Decline
It's the political economy, stupid
Side note: I’m hoping to soon share essays on a number of topics, including: “left-masculinity” politics; neocon influence on the Democratic Party; the geopolitics of labor strategy; and how small states navigate international order. But China and political economy also remain enduring preoccupations. No shortage of things to try and make sense of in this world!
I’m working on a longer project explaining my “theory” of China as a policy problem, which focuses on root causes and takes a relational and world-historical perspective.
One piece of that theory is worth breaking off quickly to share here: China shit-talking America’s relative decline following the Global Financial Crisis. Why’d they do it? How should we understand it?
Every China watcher knows that, between 2008 and 2011, the CCP started really pushing talking points that China was a rising power, and that the United States was in secular decline by comparison. This had a basis in fact, but, more than anything, it was a shift in the prevailing vibe. China was promoting a new long-arc-of-history type narrative (so was much of the world, but China was the most extra about it).
I remember how we metabolized that talk in the Obama administration. It was disquieting to us, an affront to our self-image as masters of the universe. And it justified linking the narrow military-operational planning problem of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) to the meta framing problem of world ordering.
The national security state is not known for a solidarity ethos, but when it put these two things together—A2/AD and global order—suddenly many of its people were convinced that the fate of the world hinged on winning a WWII-style war in Taiwan.
Basically, we interpreted China’s rise-and-decline talk in the grandest and most malign way possible—we took it as a declaration that China’s trying to eat our lunch.
This remains not only the mainstream view in Washington; it’s the operating assumption that powers “Bidenomics.” And I don’t think it’s right.
Let me explain.