A book published last year by Angela Duckworth called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance points to the preoccupation the West, and United States in particular, has with the underdog or the person who overcomes all odds to succeed. American icons Steve Jobs and Tom Brady are the archetypes of the gritty success that many Westerners value.
China, on the other hand, could not care less about American grit, and if the US, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union, Southeast Asian countries and anywhere else China takes a national interest in don’t understand this equation, they are doomed to be enveloped in the Chinese stratosphere.
The American post-World War II liberal order isn’t perfect, but nations that fall under the sway of China and the Communist regime’s whims should jettison their infatuation with Donald Trump and wake up to a new, Chinese hegemonic reality.
These illiberal thoughts were best explained by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s response to complaints over his country’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference when he said: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” He said this in front of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who at the time was the frontrunner to be the next US president.
The leaders of the US and China continually butt heads because both countries see themselves as exceptional. Chinese exceptionalism is actually more sweeping than America seeing itself as “a bright city on a hill”.
Writer Harry Gelber surmised in his 2001 book Nations out of Empires how the Chinese defined civilization as the Han people or nothing at all, and President Xi Jinping in his 2014 book The Governance of China wrote “that China’s continuous civilization (over 5,000 years old) is not equal to anything on Earth, but a unique achievement in world history”. Xi has a point when it comes to national longevity, but his country’s claim to exceptionalism is questionable.
Does the world, and particularly Southeast Asia, want a rules-based system like that which has restrained the US since World War II or a Chinese-type system that plays into a Darwinian-Nietzschean level of geopolitical behavior where the strong master the weak? The answer sometimes isn’t cut and dried when you consider the success Singapore has enjoyed under its authoritarian system, and certainly the Chinese since communist economic liberalization with firm state control that was instigated under Deng Xiaoping and continues unabated today.
Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine last year how China’s long-term view is overtaking Western shortsighted behavior:
One of the things that fascinated me about the Chinese is whenever I would have a conversation with them about international standards or international rules of behavior, they would inevitably point out that those rules were made when they were absent from the world stage.
One admirable trait of the Chinese government is its willingness to speak about World War II atrocities and how that experience still affects its geopolitical behavior. There are drawbacks, though, to this continued behavior, as evoked during Shanghai-based venture capitalist Eric Li’s TED Talk that reminded the audience of “China’s civil war, being dismembered by foreign aggression during World War II, but now they are the second-largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse and its people live in increasing prosperity”.
Samuel Huntington’s essay “The Clash of Civilizations” explained that cultural fault lines are the issues defining the post Cold-War order. And while this explanation has been helpful in dissecting the fissures between Western and Islamic values, it has been less successful identifying the gaping differences between China and American systems.
Huntington elaborated on the differences between a Western (US) versus Asian (Chinese) mindset when he wrote: “The very notion that there could be a ‘universal civilization’ is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies and their emphasis on what distinguishes one people from another.”
This deep, enduring conflict will persist unless addressed and comprehended. Chinese values are different from, say, those of the EU and NATO in regards to human rights, religious freedom, limited government, the state setting economic policy, and the concept of time and history. Europeans also have a point when they criticize Americans for their short national history compared with those of European nations and China, which measure their concepts of time in thousands of years.
China’s culture is utterly different from Western-style rugged individualism. The Chinese term for “individualism” is gerenzhuyi, which suggests “a selfish preoccupation with oneself over one’s community”. An admirable trait that has religious overtones and gives the Chinese people further value is when they insist “upon a harmonious community and obeying Confucius’ first imperative: Know thy place”.
American historian Richard Hofstadter explains how Americans understand Western values without ideology, whereas the Chinese believe order comes from hierarchy and if it is not obeyed, they invite chaos.
Another laudable sentiment, but it’s China’s foreign-policy dictum that should questioned.
China’s conception of government and its foreign policy have the potential for lethal hegemonic activity. What NATO, the EU, most of Southeast Asia and the United States don’t seem to comprehend is the strategic patience inherent in China’s thinking.
If harassing the Philippine island of Thithu using Chinese naval vessels and Coast Guard ships doesn’t gain immediate advantages, then use long-term, strategic behavior to gain objective strength over the Philippines and draw it away from its traditional ally – the US. Seemingly the Chinese now use foreign policy and geopolitics the way a weiqi (Go) master dominates the center of the board to conquer an opponent.
Unfortunately for all of Asia, the US suffers from what Gore Vidal called USA, the United States of Amnesia. Americans are short-term problem-solving thinkers by nature, and the Chinese are the exact opposite – to Southeast Asia’s detriment. China’s leaders, including Xi, exhibit these traits in abundance: patient, domineering behavior, long-term thinking, and comfortably waiting out problems using management skill over resolving the matter in question.
The Chinese, unlike the Americans and their European allies, would have never pulled out of Iraq. The US formerly had long-term strategic traits like the Chinese when they stayed in Germany, Japan and South Korea to ensure worldwide peace and prosperity.
The Chinese have skillfully since 1949 waited out the supposedly rogue nationalists of Taiwan. Xi, if cornered, would insist that Taiwan is a part of China, even an integral piece, and China will tighten the noose economically, militarily and socially to bring them back into the fold.
But this false Chinese notion of rationality has played out dangerously on the world stage, with the evolving dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, demanding that Vietnam stop energy exploration on its Vanguard Bank, and the Doklam standoff with India. The India dilemma has coincided with China’s propaganda war to pull Bhutan closer to Beijing instead of traditional ally New Delhi, unveiling the true nature of China’s strategy.
Many foreign-policy experts believe the US and China are advancing toward a Thucydides’ trap, but China is too smart and sophisticated for that to happen. What Beijing is now achieving is a Hobbesian jungle that involves areas like the South China Sea, patiently pushing aside smaller countries while entangling the US, Japan and South Korea in a tug-of-war with China’s proxy, North Korea.
When China makes these moves it does so with a keen eye on geo-strategic placement (an example is a new overseas base in Djibouti to counter India’s Indian Ocean dominance), diversified mineral wealth and using gains at others’ expense for potential Chinese exploitation.
Henry Kissinger wrote in his 2011 book On China of the Chinese term shi, which means “the potential energy or momentum inherent in any circumstance at a given moment comprising geography, terrain, weather, balance of forces, surprise, moral and many other elements”.
Kissinger elaborated that the Chinese planner spends his time “observing and cultivating changes in the strategic landscape”. That is exactly what is taking place in the border dispute with India, attempting to conquer the South China Sea and displacing the US out of Southeast Asia with a phony nuclear threat involving North Korea while the Chinese manifestly prop up Kim Jong-un’s regime with expanded trade.
The results would seem inevitable, that China will clash with its neighbors who seek their own sovereignty, and certainly with the US, but there are solutions that the Cold War proved will work. Deterrence backed by a modern, three-pronged nuclear umbrella can stop the inevitable, and it should begin with Japan and South Korea having US nuclear weapons.
While China would have every right to be furious at such a ploy, Southeast Asian countries and the US have that same prerogative given unrestrained Chinese hegemonic behavior. Authoritarian regimes deserve a response.
Realize as well that China isn’t full of ideologues, but its leaders are still communists and understand one thing – strength combined with power – and the US and its allies should press onward with South China Sea “freedom of navigation” patrols and energy exploration and support India’s confrontation with China over Bhutan.
Meet the Chinese with unabashed power, precision and an unconstrained military buildup in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. This isn’t a war cry, but if the Chinese want realpolitik, then freedom-loving or at least sovereignty-loving nations should deter them, because they aren’t backing down. China’s geopolitical moves indicate that its leaders have swiftly gone from playing chess in a conventional sense to playing a game of never letting their country be ransacked as it was in World War II ever again.
The world had better take notice and adjust its thinking accordingly.