For the past two years, China has been riding buoyantly on the crest of a diplomatic wave; the Asian giant is widely seen at home and abroad as the natural heir to the United States’ mantle as the world’s leading superpower.
Three weeks ago, a top Chinese official sounded a very different note.
“It is the United States that leads the world. We have a clear understanding of this,” Vice Premier Wang Yang told a US-China trade forum in Chicago. “China does not have any ideas or capabilities to challenge the leading role of the United States.”
Since President Xi Jinping took power two years ago, Beijing has strengthened its claim to be Asia’s undisputed leader, demanded that Washington should treat it as an equal in a “new kind of great power relationship,” and done nothing to discourage official media from speculating on the implications of US decline.
Mr. Wang’s new humility initially attracted little attention. The state-run Xinhua News Agency’s Chinese language report on the speech did not refer to his unusual comments. Neither did the official press mention them.
Yet there was no indication that he had spoken out of turn. The Ministry of Commerce later posted the full text of the speech in Chinese and English on its website, and Chinese news web portals have carried the speech prominently in recent days, ensuring its wide distribution and a lively discussion on social media.
Analysts in both China and the US see the speech as a Chinese attempt to reassure the Americans about Beijing’s intentions after a bruising year or two of diplomatic clashes.
“This is part of a new campaign to reassure the United States and build on the recent summit between Xi and Obama,” says David Shambaugh, who teaches Chinese politics at George Washington University in Washington.
“US nervousness has been growing,” agrees Zhu Feng, an international affairs specialist at Nanjing University. “Wang Yang took note of that and so he elaborated on the Chinese view of the US. It was a very intentional message.”
After clashing with Washington over its declaration of an air defense identification zone around Japan’s Senkaku Islands and its blunt assertion of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has “understood that they mishandled a variety of issues,” says Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The Chinese are trying to convey a more moderate and softer message,” he adds. “They are trying to promote the image of a more flexible power.”
Whether that image matches reality is a matter of debate. China has taken a number of steps recently that could be seen as aimed at undermining Washington’s role in the Asia-Pacific region.
President Xi outlined an “Asia for Asians” security framework – pointedly excluding the US – at a regional conference he hosted in Shanghai last May; China is promoting an Asian free trade pact to rival the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership; and late last year, Beijing launched the $50 billion Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, which Washington tried to stop its regional allies from joining for fear it could challenge the US-dominated Asian Development Bank.
“I see nothing in their global diplomatic behavior to suggest that the Chinese accept the US order,” says Prof. Shambaugh. “They have been highly uncomfortable with it for years and now they have the money to try to weaken the US role in the world,” he adds. “We must not confuse rhetoric with reality.”
Chinese scholars acknowledge that Wang’s speech is unlikely to convert skeptics in the US. His comments “were helpful but far from sufficient,” says Shi Yinhong, an expert on China-US relations at Renmin University and foreign policy adviser to the government.
At the same time, he points out, “China has not changed in any degree its positions on the South China Sea and East China Sea,” which have brought it into conflict with Washington and its allies in recent years. “Wang Yang’s stance is only part of the picture,” Prof. Shi cautions. “The overall situation is still very complex.”
But Chinese foreign policy analysts insist that Wang’s comments reflect mainstream official Chinese thinking on the relationship with Washington. “It is what Xi tells Obama in private,” says Jia Qingguo, an international relations expert at Peking University.
“Certainly some Chinese have recently become quite euphoric … about the progress that China has made and its future. Even in government, there are people who think in that way,” Prof. Jia explains. “But Wang was stating a reality.”
Less triumphalist voices are rarely given space in the Chinese media — hence the surprise that Wang’s speech has occasioned. “The Chinese government believes it should do everything possible to ensure that people are confident of China’s future,” says Jia. So the media do not often disseminate such modest assessments of China’s role in the world as Wang offered.
In the West, meanwhile, such modesty may be suspect when set against recent Chinese assertiveness on the world stage. Prof. Zhu, however, insists that it is no more than a healthy dose of realism. “I don’t think many people in the US will be convinced,” he says. “But at least Wang Yang’s comments are honest and candid.”