The Washington Post this morning reports a Chinese admiral’s blurting out Chinese perceptions of the US in a recent meeting including US representatives. This is reported much as the Americans present spun it; he doesn’t really represent the views of the established leadership of China. If he doesn’t, the establishment should resign and put him in charge. Would that we could hear him clearly as he’s telling us something interesting. Summarizing, “…31 years after the United States and China normalized relations, there remains a deep distrust in Beijing. That the United States is trying to keep China down is a central part of the party’s catechism and a foundation of its claims to legitimacy.
More broadly, many Chinese security experts and officials view the Obama administration’s policy of encouraging Chinese participation in solving the world’s problems — including climate change, the global financial crisis and the security challenges in Iran and North Korea — not as attempts to elevate China into the ranks of global leadership but rather as a scheme to enmesh it in a paralyzing web of commitments.”
The Chinese have been around awhile as a functioning society and culture. It is said that China has spurned engagement with the rest of the world and its triumphs and troubles because many of the triumphs it had already experienced and it had no appetite for troubles. So just possibly the admiral’s perspective, said to have been surprising to the Americans present, deserves consideration for wisdom applicable to our own circumstances.
First is that distrust of cultures unfamiliar to us can be expressed as distrust of our simplistic understanding of them and imposing our sensibilities on them without deep reflection and study first. All too often we assume other people, having quite different cultural experience from our own, none the less share some obvious underlying set of values, usually including aspirations to democracy and human rights. For us the universality of such aspirations is proved by “the obviously theorem,” i.e. how could any sensible person not want them? My plane geometry teacher taught me early that this theorem didn’t hold water and he was equally unimpressed by the “by observation theorem” which states roughly that if two lines look to be of equal length and no evidence is presented to the contrary, then they are of equal length. But these two theorems inform many of our policies, particularly policies that lead to outright intervention in other peoples’ affairs.
While the admiral may be overstating in places, I have no doubt that we want to be stronger than China when push comes to shove in international relations and a political party here that explicitly advocated parity in power with China would find few candidates on its ticket, even fewer of those would be elected. So, stated with a little less hostility and more self-reflection, it seems the admiral is right.
China’s rapid industrial development is environmentally dirty but its steps toward ultimate cleanliness make ours look trivial. Taking on a large role in the current economic crisis when one’s country is in a steep development process seems like borrowing trouble now and in the future. Trying to beat up on the Iranian leadership’s effort to build a nuclear defense capacity when one’s only reason for doing that is that one distrusts that leadership seems like a fool’s errand in a world in which others have not been penalized for moving ahead with nuclear weapons. This is especially true for the Chinese for the day may come, if it’s not already here, when working with that leadership on matters of one’s national interest makes good sense. And carrying other people’s water with bordering North Korea when one has, likely, prepared one’s own defenses against any nuclear threat from North Korea with full knowledge of North Korea, must seem like being invited to put one’s own dog in the fight, just to risk its being unnecessarily bit.
So, if I run into an angry voluble Chinese admiral, I’m going to hear him out. (I guess its only right to tell you that to this point, age 67, I have never met a Chinese admiral, angry or otherwise.)