International relations is one of the few fields in which gesture and symbol is of tremendous significance. Although it surely does not trump action, it definitely rivals it. Indeed, the line demarcating what is a “symbol” and what is an “action” is increasingly blurry, and at times non-existent. This is due, I believe, to the important role that perception plays in foreign affairs. Therefore, it is impossible for us to ignore two recent incidents concerning China and, implicitly, America. One is simply a symbol whereas the other is an action with real economic consequences, but both are important: this week the Chinese moon rover Yutu landed on the moon; over the summer, a deal was announced whereby Nicaragua granted a Chinese businessman the rights to build a canal across the Central American nation. These are both obvious challenges to the United States. For the first time since the Cold War, America is not alone on the moon, and the American flag there now competes with a Chinese one. Further, the plans are being made – and the rights have already been granted – to build a Chinese canal to rival the American made Panama Canal. The trappings of American hegemony are beginning to fade.

On December 14, in the moon’s Bay of Rainbows, a Chinese rover named Yutu – Jade Rabbit – landed on the moon. Brandishing a Chinese flag and carrying the aspirations of a nation, Yutu dealt America a major symbolic blow. The moon, one must understand, was one of the few realms that was still only American. Because the entire world is slowly catching up to the United States – nuclear proliferation, air craft careers, multi-trillion dollar economies, putting men in space – it seems that we are no longer unique. With less things to point to as uniquely American, it becomes harder and harder to believe in American exceptionalism.

The moon was one of the last things Americans could claim as their own. Tied together with its uniqueness was the historical context of American lunar dominance. The moon landing was accomplished during the height of the Cold War, and stood as a symbol of American might and achievement. Russia’s rovers, parts of the Lunokhod project, were emasculated and foolish attempts to compete for American glory compared to it. But that was only because the moon landings were fresh, because the Russian rovers were in response to actual Americans on the moon. However, Yutu is in response to nothing, and rather is a realization of Chinese potential.

About 110 years after the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granting the US the rights to build the Panama was signed, a Chinese businessman signed a deal with Nicaragua which gave him similar rights. This is both a symbolic and actual challenge to the US. In the Western Hemisphere, America’s backyard, a Chinese canal three times the length of the American built Panama Canal is being proposed. The Chinese are attempting to, both literally and symbolically, parallel the US.

In order for the proposed canal to be economically feasible, it will have to earn $1 billion a year. The Panama Canal, however, earns about $2 billion a year. So in other words, the proposed Chinese canal, in order to survive, will have to siphon off about one half of the Panama Canal’s traffic. The Chinese have placed themselves in unnecessary direct competition with the US.

It is certainly true that America is no longer a singular hegemon. The events I discussed above take place in the context of waning American economic and diplomatic power. America is either unable or willing to project itself abroad, and it seems that the United States no longer has a coherent grand strategy for its foreign policy. But the question left to be answered is whether the United States is losing its status, or whether the United States is giving it up. That is, is the US even trying to compete with the world for its unique status, or is it resigned to be just another nation, albeit a powerful one? Events on the ground have not answered this question yet clearly, but they do suggest something: America, when given the opportunity, has declined to project itself.