Morality and Law
Panic of Decline – Which Is the Revisionist Power, the US or China?

There’s no question that the US, rather than China, is a leading revisionist power today, because the Washington establishment of both political parties is trapped in another wave of panic: the morbid fear of a US decline. Americans are always obsessed with declinism. Declinism is a business that never declines, writes Valdai Club expert Xiang Lanxin.

A central premise of the Biden foreign-policy team is that China is trying to challenge the status quo, which is defined as US primacy in the world system. China is seen as a rising power with a huge grudge against the existing international system. In short, it could be said that there are parallels between the second decade of the twenty-first century and the early twentieth century, when a democratic England struggled with a rising, economically powerful but authoritarian Germany. This analogy, however, that of a “Wilhelmine China”, is flawed: it is hardly obvious, in the year 2021, just who is defending the status quo. The irony is, at the very moment of China’s decision to integrate fully into the international system, the United States seems to have started the process of changing that system. It is abandoning the rules it established at the end of the Second World War, especially the liberal international economic order, which was based on free trade and the mechanism of market competition. After more than forty years of reform and opening, China is on the verge of becoming a lead player in the existing international economic system. Just as China aspires to become a “normal state” for the first time in its long and self-isolated history, the criterion for “normal” is changing. When China became multilateral in its foreign relations, America became unilateral under the Trump administration, and this policy has continued under Biden.

There’s no question that the US, rather than China, is a leading revisionist power today, because the Washington establishment of both political parties is trapped in another wave of panic: the morbid fear of a US decline.

Americans are always obsessed with declinism. Declinism is a business that never declines. Declinism is most useful when blaming others for one’s own internal problems.

How do good times happen? What makes the bad times come? Why do we fall, and who helps us come back, if anyone can? Declinism has the same fascination for historians that love has for romantic poets. The people who want to set up China as the new monster are obliged to explain why the US is declining. Ironically, they cannot do it convincingly, since the intellectual predecessors of the new declinist, Joe Biden, are all declinists, too. He has to face insurmountable logical absurdity by insisting that the previous era was actually a peak rather than the valley that the previous declinists thought were actually valleys.

The popularity of declinism was established in 1918, in the book that gave decline a profitable name in publishing: the German historian Oswald Spengler’s best-selling work “The Decline of the West”. For many in Washington, Spengler was far-sighted in his pessimism and attempt to foretell the decline of liberalism in the face of the spread of totalitarianism. But this is not enough — they have also to revive Spenger’s racism to justify their animosity toward China. Hence, the Yellow Peril narrative came in handy for the Trump administration. Trumpism is stoking a fierce racial war in the United States and abroad; hostility towards the Yellow Peril has been kindled simultaneously. This is no accident. While Trump’s China policy was openly racist (phrases such as “Kung Flu” have certainly been responsible for current anti-Asian hate crimes), Biden’s China policy is more subtle. However, its Yellow Peril undertone is unmistakable. Since the political elite in Washington are horrified by a crumbling world order built on “unipolar fantasy”, it is not surprising that they are, subconsciously perhaps, seeking inspiration from Spengler, the guru of the racialist school of decline. The combination of declinism and the Yellow Peril narrative produces a perfect rhetorical tool for China-bashing today.

Spengler, the original prophet of a declining West, left a horrible proposition for the Western people over a century ago: if the decline of the West is caused by its own doing, i.e., internecine wars, then you have no one to blame. But if the rise of the non-white peoples causes the West to decline, how should the white world deal with them? Either by eliminating them or simply retarding the advancement of their societies. The worst solution, according to Spengler, is to ‘integrate’ them. The America Firsters have peddled this message loud and clear. Nazi Germany chose to eliminate an entire ethnic group, while the US prefers to return to the idea of economic retardation and launch a military chokehold against the most advanced non-white country, China. Not by accident, Spengler also provided a handy theory for technological “decoupling” with China. He vehemently opposed technological advances in general, for fear of non-White people getting hold of them to destroy Western civilisation. More importantly, the China-bashing campaign is shrouded in a moralistic halo.

It argues that the Chinese system is illegitimate because it refuses to be westernised. This reflects both arrogance and ignorance about Chinese history and culture.

Despite the volumes of Western books that have been written on Chinese foreign policy, a serious study of the conceptual history of China’s foreign relations has barely begun. The US administration fails to understand the fact that the meaning of Chinese foreign relations can only be grasped in a specific Chinese context of political legitimacy, not through some universal principles that allegedly guide the international behaviour of states. Confucian culture stresses that endogenous factors dictate the rise and decay of a state system, based on moral standards. Traditionally, Chinese do not believe that a regime’s legitimacy can be enhanced through the expansion of the Mandate of Heaven into an outer sphere beyond Chinese culture, either through the conquest of outlying territories, or legitimate states inhabited by non-Chinese.
Colonialism, invented by the West, has never reared its ugly head in Chinese history.

Foreign adventure and territorial expansion for resettlement purposes had never occurred to Chinese rulers as an effective medicine to cure immanent moral illnesses that inevitably give rise to political chaos at home. The non-expansionist attitude contrasts sharply with the persistent missionary zeal in the Christian West, which at least from the Crusades onwards, has been obsessed with “spiritual” promotion (today it is also called democratic promotion) in faraway foreign lands, often with military force. A traditional consensus is that, if a morally corrupt system (the US is no exception) does not undergo serious reforms, it will not be able to sustain itself for long. Jim Crowism is alive and strong in the US, but it is not the fault of the Chinese. Even though little morality has been demonstrated by the recent foreign policies of the United States, not many in Washington are willing to admit that the US, as a self-appointed moral leader, faces a major crisis, and that the existing global system, long characterised by benign US hegemonic control, is in need of fundamental reforms. If the current US-China tension continues, we are sleepwalking into 1914.

Global Governance
Impact of the US-China Conflict on Greater Eurasia. A New Cold War is Looming?
Xiang Lanxin
Beijing must be prepared for the demise of the original framework of engaging Washington, and the volatility of the relationship that follows. It should consider a return to Deng Xiaoping’s original admonition to curb its global ambitions, and re-evaluate the entire Belt and Road Initiative, writes Valdai Club expert Xiang Lanxin.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.