The president’s visit to China was seen as failure, but what if that was just the new standard? Martin Jacques on why the U.S. must get used to decline—and learn humility

Obama’s visit to China last week was starkly different from previous such occasions. The United States has stumbled into a new era. Just a decade ago it all looked so different. President Bush—in one of history’s great miscalculations—believed that the world stood on the verge of a new American century. In fact, the opposite was the case. The defeat of the Soviet Union flattered only to deceive and mislead. In a world increasingly defined by the rise of the developing countries, most notably China, the United States was, in fact, in relative decline. It took the global financial crisis to begin to convince the U.S. that it could no longer take its global supremacy for granted. This dawning realisation has come desperately late in the day. Even now most of the country remains in denial. Never has a great power been less prepared or equipped to face its own decline.

Fortunately, in Barack Obama the nation has a president that possesses a rare characteristic for that office, humility. He has made it clear from the outset that the U.S. cannot run the world on its own but only in co-operation with others. In Beijing he welcomed China’s rise as a positive and sought a relationship of partnership with it. But as with the U.S. financial crisis, Obama is making it up as he goes along. Like the rest of the ruling elite, he finds himself ambushed by American decline, a situation that his administration was entirely unprepared for. Those who criticized his performance in Beijing as being too weak are not even at the starting line: They refuse to face up to the reality of a fundamental shift in the balance of power with China. In this context, Obama can do no better than, to use one of Deng Xiaoping’s favourite expressions, “cross a river by feeling the stones”

So what of the Chinese? There was no hand-wringing, point-scoring, or triumphalism, but the Chinese leadership made it abundantly clear that they will do things in their own way and will refuse to be pressured on issues like Tibet, human rights, or the valuation of the renminbi; unlike on previous visits by Clinton and Bush, there were no concessions even in the window-dressing. The good news for the U.S. is that China will continue to place great emphasis on a good working relationship. The Chinese do not view it as a zero-sum game in the manner of the Cold War. There will be no precipitous action such as the selling off of the vast quantities of U.S. debt held by China.

The United States faces two great problems in its relationship with China. While the Chinese have been developing and elaborating their strategy of transformation for over three decades with great skill and patience, the Americans have never seriously entertained the scenario of decline they now find themselves in. In that sense, the relationship is unequal; China knows what it is doing, the U.S. does not. The American establishment has an enormous amount of thinking to do about how to handle China and how to conduct itself in a rapidly changing world. The U.S. also faces another problem, in truth a far bigger one. It does not understand China. Ever since the Nixon-Mao rapprochement, it has operated on the assumption that China will in time end up like the United States, that it would become another Western-style society. It will not. Chinese modernity will share some Western characteristics but it will also remain profoundly different. For modernity is shaped not simply by technology, competition, and markets but equally by history and culture—and Chinese history and culture are extremely distinctive. The United States has long been in denial of this, believing that the end-point of every society must be Western, by virtue of the fact that its own characteristics are universal.

The refusal to recognise that China is different, and will remain very different, is the reason why the United States consistently gets China wrong: that the country would divide after Tiananmen Square and that the Chinese Communist Party would collapse in the manner of the Soviet Communist Party; that market reforms would lead to a free media and a Western-style democracy; that without them China’s growth could not be sustained; that the Chinese did not mean it when they offered Hong Kong ‘one country two systems’; that rise of the market would lead to a steady decline in the role of the state. China, in fact, understands the United States much better than the U.S. understands China. This is because China—like other developing nations—has been obliged to understand the U.S. in order to negotiate its economic growth and modernization. The United States has never been obliged to understand developing societies in this way because it has always enjoyed a relationship of dominance with them. This is no longer the case with China. If not a relationship of equality, China now enjoys real power over the United States, not least as its banker.

The starting point for a new American strategy toward China must be intellectual humility; the recognition that China is and will remain different. The two societies are historically constructed in entirely different ways. To give one example, the role of the state is highly circumscribed and viewed with inherent suspicion by American society; in China the opposite is the case, not just in the communist period but over many centuries, with no obvious boundaries to its power and the state enjoying remarkable legitimacy and deference (even though not a single vote is cast).

But if the United States has barely begun to think about its own decline, it is highly unlikely that it is ready to start thinking about China in an entirely different way. In the new era of relative parity between the two countries, this will leave U.S. presidents at a profound disadvantage. They will find that they are prone to continuously misread and misinterpret their emergent partner, protagonist and rival.