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Politics

China isn't America's rival -- pinkie swear

Catherine Rampell on

Government officials have in fact been issuing similar assurances for years, whenever Sino-panic flares up in the United States. One of China's central conundrums has been how to "peacefully rise" without freaking out Americans, particularly since U.S. politicians do adore a good red scare.

But lately, China has especially strong motivation to convince us of its superpowerlessness.

Despite an apparently warm relationship between Trump and Xi, in the past two weeks alone, the United States has filed a brief with the World Trade Organization opposing China's designation as a market economy, a move Chinese state media calls "selfish" and "protectionist"; launched a probe into China's alleged aluminum dumping; and announced a halt to bilateral trade talks with Beijing.

A forthcoming Trump administration report is expected to name China's economic policy as one of America's biggest security threats.

And meanwhile, the U.S. government clearly views China as having sufficient clout to force North Korea to halt its nuclear program -- influence the Chinese government would prefer Americans not assume it has.

Again and again, this Chinese official sought to impress upon his American guests that China is not a threat. "China is not the Soviet Union," he said. Later: "Recent comments and actions advocating a stronger line against China we believe are a sign of an outdated Cold War mentality."

Of course, a cynic or Sinophobe might hear in China's deflections and self-deprecations Deng Xiaoping's famous dictum to "hide your strength, bide your time."

But many Chinese do see their country as an underdog of sorts, albeit one on the upswing.

 

While the Chinese economy is now second-largest in the world, that looks significantly less impressive when you adjust for its massive population. Gross domestic product per capita is about $17,000. More than 40 million people still live on less than a dollar a day.

Rising wealth also means that the Chinese public may increasingly view their country as a resurgent power and expect it to start acting like one -- that is, to become more assertive in its dealings with big bad American bullies. The Chinese government must walk a fine line between appeasing these nationalistic impulses (hence Xi's carefully calibrated "center stage" line) and simultaneously assuring the United States that it is not a serious rival.

Which explains why this official took pains to let us know his government has no desire to export the "so-called China model."

Looking at Washington lately, however, one has to wonder: To the extent that the "China model" means wielding economic influence without ever nagging anyone about pesky democratic values, maybe this export has already done better than China ever intended.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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