Part of The Best of Print in 2012

How China Sees America

The Sum of Beijing’s Fears

But widespread perceptions of China as an aggressive, expansionist power are off base. Although China's relative power has grown significantly in recent decades, the main tasks of Chinese foreign policy are defensive and have not changed much since the Cold War era: to blunt destabilizing influences from abroad, to avoid territorial losses, to reduce its neighbors' suspicions, and to sustain economic growth. What has changed in the past two decades is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers.

Chief among those powers, of course, is the United States, and managing the fraught U.S.-Chinese relationship is Beijing's foremost foreign policy challenge. And just as Americans wonder whether China's rise is good for U.S. interests or represents a looming threat, Chinese policymakers puzzle over whether the United States intends to use its power to help or hurt China. 

Americans sometimes view the Chinese state as inscrutable. But given the way that power is divided in the U.S. political system and the frequent power turnovers between the two main parties in the United States, the Chinese also have a hard time determining U.S. intentions. Nevertheless, over recent decades, a long-term U.S. strategy seems to have emerged out of a series of American actions toward China. So it is not a hopeless exercise -- indeed, it is necessary -- for the Chinese to try to analyze the United States. 

Most Americans would be surprised to learn the degree to which the Chinese believe the United States is a revisionist power that seeks to curtail China's political influence and harm China's interests. This view is shaped not only by Beijing's understanding of Washington but also by the broader Chinese view of the international system and China's place in it, a view determined in large part by China's acute sense of its own vulnerability. 

THE FOUR RINGS

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