BEIJING – US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent four-day visit to China ended on a high note. He assured Chinese leaders that the United States is committed to honoring all its debts, despite its recent credit downgrade; he talked enthusiastically about US-China interdependence; and he showcased his granddaughter, who has studied Chinese for several years, as a future bridge between the two countries.
But, behind all the smiles and banquet toasts, serious issues and perception gaps continue to divide the world’s two great powers.
For starters, there is always an attitude problem. To those who view China’s rise in a negative light, the country is simply becoming ever more arrogant. It is getting tough in its territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea; it is becoming assertive in the South China Sea with its neighbors, also over disputed islands; it put its own stealth fighter on display during the US defense secretary’s visit to China; it is sending its first aircraft carrier out to sea for trials, indicating the possibility of establishing naval bases in the Indian Ocean. Even a brawl between the Chinese and a visiting American basketball team is viewed as evidence of China’s aggressive behavior.
Many Chinese, on the other hand, tend to think that the US is suffering from severe case of conceited superpower syndrome. As these Chinese see it, the US has a rather dysfunctional government, but nevertheless insists that its political and economic system is the best in the world, and that everyone should emulate it. It is heavily in debt, but cannot stop spending and borrowing. It is no longer competitive in manufacturing, but blames others for its huge trade deficit. And the world’s only military superpower is often seen within China as trigger-happy when intervening in other countries’ internal affairs.
Then, there is the issue of trust. China’s critics argue that its claims to a peaceful rise are not credible, given the country’s non-democratic, one-party system. Coupled with this is a zero-sum view of the world, in which any Chinese gain in the share of the global economy, or any increased presence in many parts of the world, must be at the expense of the US or other powers. Any Chinese military move is portrayed as an expansionary and aggressive act that must be contained. Any attempts at engagement by Western politicians, such as Biden’s recent trip, are automatically met with doubt and criticism for cozying up to dictators.