Bridging China and America’s polar opposite perspectives eludes the world’s greatest minds. But they miss a key principle.
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Relations between the United States and China are teetering on a precipice after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Mrs. Pelosi received a rapturous welcome in Taipei and was applauded with strong bipartisan support in Washington. But her trip has enraged Beijing and Chinese nationalists and will complicate already strained ties even after her departure.
China made shows of force in the Taiwan Strait to make clear that its claims are non-negotiable on the island it regards as a renegade province. And, as the U.S. presses ahead with demonstrations of support for Taiwan, arms sales and diplomatic lobbying, the escalating tensions have raised the risks of military confrontation, intentional or not.
And the trip could further muddle Washington’s already complicated relationship with Beijing as the two sides wrest with differences over trade, the war in Ukraine, human rights and more.
Wary of the reaction from China, the Biden administration discouraged but did not prevent Mrs. Pelosi from visiting Taiwan. It has taken pains to stress to Beijing that the House speaker is not a member of the executive branch and her visit represents no change in the U.S. “one-China” policy.
That was little comfort for Beijing. Mrs. Pelosi, who is second in line to the U.S. presidency, was no ordinary visitor and was greeted almost like a head of state.
Chinese officials were enraged.
“Pelosi’s dangerous provocation is purely for personal political capital, which is an absolute ugly political farce,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said after her departure. “China-US relations and regional peace and stability is suffering.”
Alarmed by the possibility of a new geo-strategic conflict at the same time the West sides with Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s invasion, the U.S. has rallied allies to its side.
The foreign ministers of the Group of 7 industrialized democracies released a statement Wednesday essentially telling China—by the initials of its formal name, the People’s Republic of China—to calm down.
“It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally,” the G-7 ministers said. “The PRC’s escalatory response risks increasing tensions and destabilizing the region. We call on the PRC not to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the region, and to resolve cross-Strait differences by peaceful means.”
Still, that status quo—long identified as “strategic ambiguity” for the U.S. and quiet but determined Chinese opposition to any figment of Taiwanese independence—appears to be no longer tenable for either side.
“It’s getting harder and harder to agree on Taiwan for both Beijing and Washington,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an emeritus professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
China had ratcheted up potential confrontation weeks ago by declaring that the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from the mainland is not international waters. The U.S. rejected this and responded to by sending more vessels through it. Mr. Cabestan said that showed that “something had to be done on the U.S. side to draw red lines to prevent the Chinese from going too far.”
Meanwhile, Taiwan is on edge, air raid shelters have been prepared and the government is increasing training for recruits serving their four months of required military service.
“The Chinese feel that if they don’t act, that the United States is going to continue to slice the salami to take incremental actions toward supporting Taiwan independence,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.
She said that domestic U.S. support for Taiwan actually gives China added incentive to take a strong stance: “China does feel under pressure to do more to signal that this is an issue in which China cannot compromise.”
Headed Toward War?
If tensions between the world’s biggest militaries ratcheted up to war, it would prove catastrophic beyond imagination. Both nations are nuclear countries and have the world’s largest economies to fund a massive arms race.
In his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? Dr. Graham Allison of Harvard University unveiled a historical pattern where increasing tensions between rising and reigning states led to diplomatic friction and war. Dr. Allison names this pattern “Thucydides’ Trap,” referencing a Greek strategist who identified the growth of Athenian power and the fear of the dominant Spartans as the cause of the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 404 BC.
Dr. Allison identified 16 historical cases in which the rise of a rival state provoked a response from an existing power. In most of those cases, devastating wars followed and led to the quick decline of influence of both sides.
These cases suggest relations between rising and reigning powers almost inevitably fight one another to preserve or secure their superiority.
To avoid this outcome, the author suggests both China and the U.S. need to humble their stances, genuinely endeavor to understand each other’s perspective, and seek compromise. Otherwise, the two powers are poised to face the same fate as others before them—becoming locked in a cataclysmic conflict.
But achieving complete mutual understanding is no small undertaking. What would it take for two nations with practically opposite political ideologies, national objectives, histories and geographies to fully understand each other’s perspective and avert war?
Contrasting World View
In a study submitted to the National Academy of Science, psychologist Richard Nisbett stated: “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that Western and East Asian people have contrasting world-views. Americans break things down analytically, focusing on putting objects into categories and working out what rules they should obey.”
By contrast, East Asians have a more holistic philosophy, looking at objects or situations in relation to the whole. “Figuratively, Americans see things in black and white, while East Asians see more shades of grey,” says Dr. Nisbett.
That difference in thinking drives the tension between the two nations.
According to Dr. Nisbett, this distinctive pattern has developed because of the philosophies of these two cultures. “Harmony is a central idea in East Asian philosophy, and so there is more emphasis on how things relate to the whole,” he stated. “In the West, by contrast, life is about achieving goals. Westerners and Asians literally see different worlds.”
This is why Chinese people are more apt to adhere to principles that seem outlandish to the average Westerner. Where an American views Beijing’s one-child policy as an interference of personal choice, for example, a Chinese family conforms because it sees the practice as necessity for the very survival of the nation.
Similarly, group unity and team-building activities is expected in China—to the point it takes on a military form that the West can see as harsh.
During my time living in China, staff of the company I worked with would often participate in military drills led by the Chinese army to instill group discipline and cohesion to Chinese ideals. This is common in schools and sports. We can all remember the opening ceremony of the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing during which 10,000 drummers worked in perfect unison.
This same mindset is also why large-scale infrastructure projects can be completed in stunning time. In June, one construction company—with the help of three cranes, scores of prefabricated pieces, and hundreds of workers—built a 10-story apartment unit in under 29 hours.
Such events—sometimes involving the personal sacrifice of mass groups of people to simply put on a great show in the name of China—is contrary to Western thinking. Any effort put on in the U.S. would more likely be supported if it involved some personal benefit or consequence.
This vast gap in psyche was born out of vastly different formative experiences.
History Shapes Thinking
The Chinese people, who are more deeply in touch with their history, still carry the intentions, motivations and emotions of generations past. The Diplomat explained: “Part of what is happening now derives naturally enough from the trajectory of any rising power—or a power that after years of investment and work is feeling like its time has come.”
In the case of China, it is millennia of investment and work.
Despite China hosting the world’s largest population, as well as a history of accomplishments in navigation and technology that came centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, it was Western powers that helped bring about the Asian giant’s dynastical demise. Think about the U.S. specifically, a nation born merely in the 18th century that catapulted almost immediately to global acclaim and power.
It would seem only natural that China would hold on to a “we were here first” and “we bore the heat of the day” mentality.
Also think of the Asian nation’s history of threats and attacks—and its reaction to them. Stretching from as far back as the 7th century BC, Chinese rulers commissioned the now 13,000 miles of fortifications today known as the “Great Wall of China” to defend themselves from nomadic invaders. The most infamous example of these raiders from the northern steppe is Genghis Kahn—whose blood-thirsty “great ride” with the Mongols across Asia resulted in the first time the Chinese empire was fully ruled by foreigners.
In the 20th century, Japan’s occupation of Manchuria before World War II contributed to the eventual rise of the Communist Party in 1949. Also the threat of the use of atomic weapons by the U.S. prompted Mao Zedong to begin developing his nation’s own nuclear arsenal.
All of these existential threats over the millennia fostered a collective, defensive mindset.
Compare that to the typical American response to foreign threats. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, for instance, the U.S. government did not go about retrofitting buildings to withstand jets, changing government systems, or developing more nukes. It began a global war on terror and further sought to spread democracy.
This would make sense, considering the U.S. has never faced thousands of years of raids from surrounding nations. Washington has never been sacked by a foreign power. Rather America, despite threats, has generally only experienced expansion and growth.
An Economist article described how the 19th century Opium Wars continue to shape China’s view of the West today, though those conflicts are largely forgotten in Britain and America.
“From the British point of view, [the battles] were minor compared with those of the 20th century,” the publication stated. “And they are on the other side of the peak and decline of Britain’s imperial power, which has tended to obscure them from view. But China has not forgotten the Opium Wars. The conflicts were a humiliation, exposing the hollowness of its claims to be the world’s most powerful empire. They set it on a quest, which continues to this day, to rediscover its strength.”
Chinese schoolchildren are taught this history: It is practically obligatory for them to make pilgrimages to sites that showcase examples of Western aggression. For example, the ruins of the Summer Palace in Shanghai—which was destroyed by British and French troops during the second Opium War—was memorialized by the Communist Party as a “national base for patriotic education,” along with 428 other such sites across the country.
An equivalent act for Americans would be to mark the location of the first White House, which was burned down by British imperial forces during the War of 1812. School children would be required to visit and foster some sense of victimization.
Yet most U.S. schoolchildren or college students never visit Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center in New York City, or significant monuments in the capital memorializing traumatic events that have shaped their history.
As a result, the events do not make an emotional and psychological impact and, at worst, are completely forgotten.
Without acknowledging these vast differences in world views, both the U.S. and China can never truly foster stronger ties.
A Better Way
In China, there is a well-known proverb that translates: “An army puffed up with pride is doomed to defeat.”
In the Western world, there is a similar proverb: “Pride comes before the fall.”
This has defined the rise and fall of nations throughout the millennia of mankind’s history.
The Bible also aptly defines the danger of pride, but it takes it one step further. The book of Proverbs states: “Only by pride comes contention” (Prov. 13:10).
Before pride even has a chance to cause defeat, it brings contention or quarreling. In other words, when you see two people arguing, both are proud, not wanting to yield to the other party. Nations are no different. When you see two countries in a spat over words, the trading of goods, or military threats—rest assured arrogance is involved.
The same principle applies to the world’s two biggest economies butting heads. While China staunchly defends its image and heritage, the U.S. asserts its form of government, its lifestyle and its economic system are for everyone.
Each stands by what it believes is right for society. And so inevitably they fight.
It takes humility for one person to step back and ask, “Am I doing the right thing by fighting? Is my position even correct?” It takes even greater humility to seek to de-escalate the situation.
For the two nations to establish stronger ties, both must at least begin to understand each other’s stance. Understanding and appreciating the different viewpoints stemming from the very different cultures is a start. This will require deep compromise and modesty from both sides.
But there is a greater act of humility both peoples must perform to ensure prosperity and proper relations. The second part of the verse in Proverbs 13:10 reveals the antidote: “with the well advised is wisdom.”
One way in which both nations—as well as all mankind for all time—have fallen short is seeking wisdom from the One who made the nations and “set all the borders of the earth” (Psa. 74:17).
The Bible declares that God can “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). He had intended for all peoples to live in harmony and prosper without a need to conquer each other. Yet mankind has not chosen this way—each nation stands by its own ways.
The pages of God’s Word make clear the only hope for true and lasting peace and cooperation is for both sides to realize they are wrong and have a total change of mind.
When this happens, proper cooperation and immense economic advancements will ensue. Personal relationships will be free of misunderstanding, mistrust and unfair competition.
The world has been held back because of pride. God tells us to humble ourselves and seek His counsel to have lasting advancement that benefits everyone. Only then will the peoples of America and China be able to shake hands and see eye-to-eye.
Tomorrow’s Wonderful World – An Inside View! helps explain more about how this will become a reality.
This report contains information from The Associated Press.