Decline is a tricky concept. The term makes us think of a country that is falling like a rock—one whose power and capabilities are dropping across the board. But a country can be in relative decline vis-à-vis a fast-growing adversary even if its own power is still increasing. It can be surging forward in some areas, such as military might, even as its underlying economic strength starts to wither. And decline doesn’t always lead a country to scale back its objectives—the sense of urgency it creates can cause ambitious powers to grab what they can before the clock runs out.
Xi Jinping’s China is about to give the world an education in the nuances of decline. Since the onset of its economic reforms in the 1970s, China has long defied predictions that it would soon stumble or collapse. Its spectacular growth challenged prevailing views about the sources of national success in the modern world. In some ways, China is still soaring: Its military power grows more formidable every year. When Xi declares that “the East is rising and the West is declining,” he gives voice to this sense that China is a country on the make.