Cultural Reasons China Won't Go To War With US

Cultural Reasons China Won't Go To War With US :
Will the United States live in peace with a rising China? This was the topic of a Tembusu Forum chaired by Professor Tommy Koh on March 7, the 40th anniversary of Dr Henry Kissinger's groundbreaking visit to China. The following are edited versions of remarks from three speakers

AFTER the United States' declaration of a "return" to Asia, Sino-american relations entered an unusually tense period. Many have asked if the two big powers will go into conflict, and even a war. If one looks at the essence of Chinese culture, the answer is no.
Culture matters in international affairs and influences foreign policy as a way of thinking. The mode of thinking is not a cause of conflicts, but the interactions between two different ways of thinking is likely to lead to conflict. Culture can also be mobilised and utilised to influence foreign policy. Once mobilised, the impact of culture is infinite.
So why is war an impossibility between the two? One should distinguish between small-scale conflicts and major wars. All kinds of conflicts such as trade disputes and ideology-oriented debates on human rights are inevitable and normal. But for the China-us conflict to result in a major war is unlikely.
Here is the cultural argument. A long undisrupted history of several thousand years has bestowed China with a rare sense of "big history". China perceives long-term issues with a long-term vision. China is slow in dealing with international issues, while the Americans sometimes become impatient. China's normal approach to problems is to find the best solutions before acting on them. China sees many problems as inherent in the process of development and believes solutions will eventually emerge with time.
An analogy can be made here with Chinese medicine, which is slow in curing an illness but is considered better in completely curing one. The American way is similar to Western medicine's delivering of quick fixes.

The differences between cultures are also demonstrated in the different understanding of strategy. The West views China's "Tao Guang Yang Hui" (translated literally as "hiding brightness and cherishing obscurity") strategy as something temporary and believes China is waiting for better opportunities to emerge. This strategy is apparent in China's reactive and defensive foreign policy of the last few centuries. Its defensive foreign policy is best reflected in China's Great Wall, which was built for defending aggressive invasions. Although such defensive strategies are not very successful in Chinese history, they are deeply rooted in Chinese culture.
This defensive culture also prevails in China's military development. The military philosophy of "zhi ge wei wu" simply means that the purpose of developing weapons is to use them to stop their usage. For the West, it is for deterrence while for the Chinese it is defence. China develops a certain kind of weapon or military plan only to counteract weapons and military plans directed at it. China is rarely pre-emptive like the US. China has repeatedly stressed its nuclear policy of maintaining a minimum deterrence with a no-first-use pledge. Chinese defence policy is very different from the ones adopted by the Soviet Union, Germany and Japan before World War II, which all had a state will and plan to achieve hegemony.
The reactive element is also in the daily practices of China's foreign policy, which runs on a reactive mode like firefighters. This scant regard for foreign policy can be seen in China's chess game, "weiqi" (Japanese go). In Dr Henry Kissinger's new book, On China, he uses an analogy of weiqi to depict the difference between Western and Chinese strategic cultures. Western strategic culture is like a game of chess which tends to be a zero-sum game, while the Chinese weiqi is a non-zero-sum game where relative gains are possible.
In the West, be it the presidential system or the Cabinet system, the minister of foreign affairs is a prominent and influential position. By comparison, the weiqi philosophy emphasises relative gains. Chinese-style foreign policy could be likened to doing business: you may make more profits today, but I may make more tomorrow. With such a mentality, foreign policy is never an urgent matter. Unlike his counterpart in the West, the Chinese minister of foreign policy occupies an extremely low position in the administrative hierarchy and has limited influence.
Chinese culture is also unique because of its secular nature. It does not have a mission to change others. In international affairs, it is reflected in the Chinese understanding of sovereignty. Sovereignty in the West means homogeneity and convergence, while Chinese sovereignty emphasises "harmony in diversity". Western countries have the tendency to change the polities of other countries to conform to their own, whereas China is strongly against such practices and values coexistence of different countries.
In some phases of its history, China did become aggressive, such as during the Yuan and Qing dynasties. But during these periods, China itself was ruled by what the Chinese called "barbarians". The aggressiveness of Maoist foreign policy was largely due to an imported ideology, namely, communism. Today, China is again at a crossroads. Two ideational forces are working in its foreign policy: a return to its own grand tradition or Americanisation. To be sure, Americanisation will create an aggressive China, while its grand tradition is a peaceful China, be it authoritarian or democratic.
The writer is director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore
Cultural Reasons China Won't Go To War With US -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
March 18, 2012

No comments: