I have long felt an unease regarding Chinese-American relations, intuiting a basic lack of understanding of each society toward the other. In addition, only the naïve believe that China’s totalitarian masters place economic considerations above ideology. The Chinese Communists have always viewed its participation in capitalistic endeavors as a necessary evil in achieving parity with the U.S.
Recently, I had an epiphany regarding Chinese geopolitical motivations and important pieces to the Chinese ‘puzzle’ fell into place.
Critical to understanding China’s culture and its current geopolitical mind-set is a knowledge of China’s history. China’s ‘great wall’ reveals its psychological xenophobia, its basic insecurity in constantly feeling threatened by the barbarian hordes outside its borders. China’s xenophobia is historically valid, as China was surrounded by barbarians for much of its history.
It’s important to understand that China views the West’s culture as barbaric, just as it did in Marco Pollo’s 13th century. That this is an invalid view is irrelevant, that is their prejudice and like most prejudices, it is essentially immune from correction.
America currently has a more powerful military and superior technology but the Chinese view their society as culturally superior. China sees that view being fully justified by its longevity, which in Chinese eyes, confers upon its culture an inherent superiority. In addition, China views America’s cultural, racial and ethnic diversity as inherently inferior to its homogeneous society.
To understand China geopolitically, it is useful to understand ‘The Middle Kingdom Playbook’, which refers back to imperial China and all the different ways China established some level of control over their near neighbors, whether by over-running them or by incorporating them or even by merging with and then assimilating them, in every case China always sought to be dominant.
China’s long, essentially unbroken culture is testament to the effectiveness of that strategy, until late 18th century Europe arrived. But neither the European conquerors nor Mao’s Communism destroyed every aspect of Chinese culture. Most relevantly, its xenophobic insecurity and compensating cultural superiority complex survived.
All of this is indicated in comments made by Professor Zhu Feng, Deputy Director for the Centre for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, at a recent debate in Sydney, Australia entitled, “The US Alliance is our [Australia's] best defense”. Zhu described his nervousness at having to fly over so many US military bases ringing China on his way to Sydney. He described, without hesitation or equivocation the deep suspicion in China at what is perceived as our military buildup (since WWII) in the Pacific, which many Chinese see as “containment”. Zhu warned that Beijing would take a dim view of any attempts to reopen US bases in the Philippines and indeed, any further attempt to add to the ‘cordon of steel’ that the Chinese leadership felt was stifling them. Zhu acknowledged that even China prospers under America’s benign hegemony. Nevertheless, Zhu emphasized over and over again, that the time has come to give China it’s ‘due’. The descriptive word “stifling” and the phrase “the time has come to give China it’s due” are highly indicative of China’s mind-set.
There is deep and unequivocal suspicion among the Chinese that America seeks to contain China so as to keep it vulnerable, ringing it in a cordon of steel and stifling China while refusing to give China its due. The Chinese feel disrespected by American dominance because… vulnerability equals insecurity in the Chinese mind and, that is deeply disturbing to a basically xenophobic culture. It is, IMO a mistake to dismiss Chinese fears of encirclement. To understand China’s motivations, which will determine its actions, it is necessary to consider what they believe, rather than our intentions.
In the modern world with its greatly shortened distances, China’s current borders are intuitively considered inadequate by the Chinese. Psychologically and sociologically, they need to expand their sphere of dominance in order to establish a sufficient psychological comfort zone. That is why they are trying to establish dominance in the South China Sea and why China is disputing sovereignty over island groups with both Japan and the Philippines. That is why Taiwan’s independence and American protection is a continual irritant to China.
There is great potential for ‘accidental’ conflict between China and America.