A Singaporean perspective on American and Chinese nationalism

I enjoyed this talk from long-time Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan for its relatively objective view of the peculiarities of both the US and China, and how it roots the difficulties the two countries have in their respective sense of identity. I’ve pulled out some of the key passages below:

The essential source of American and Chinese nationalism is a sense of exceptionalism; the US and China both consider themselves exceptional countries. But the conclusions they draw are different.

America is an inclusive culture that wants everyone to become like it and believes that the world would be a better place if this were so. … China’s rise has been psychologically unsettling to many in the West because in China, capitalism flourishes without democracy. This is regarded as unnatural and illegitimate because it punctures the western myth of the universality of its political values and of the inevitability of the development of political forms similar to its own. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China cannot be dismissed as an economic failure and thus challenges in a very fundamental way the western sense of self which assumes its political and moral superiority as a key element. …

I think the US knows that preservation of CCP rule is the most vital of Chinese core interests and is reluctant to endorse this explicitly. The US deals with the CCP pragmatically; it has no choice. But to invest CCP rule with legitimacy requires a redefinition of American values, including a de facto abandonment of the idea of universality that is apparently too painful to bear. …

China has an exclusive culture that rejects the notion that anyone could become like China as impossibly pretentious. To China, the best others can do is humbly acknowledge China’s superiority and the sooner we do so the better for everyone.

This is a very ancient and deeply ingrained feature of China’s approach to international relations. Throughout its history, China took great pains to preserve the forms of its centrality, at least in its own mind, even when the facts were otherwise. It never lost its sense of superiority even when powerless before the West and Japan. Now that China has re-emerged as a major power, this sense of superiority has become the underlying cause of the difficulties in China’s relations with many countries. The attitude that China is entitled to have its superiority acknowledged and that failure to do so can only be due to recalcitrance or ill-intention, is why I think China will always suffer a deficit in ‘soft power’ and evoke resentment. …

One of the basic functions of diplomacy is to see the world through your competitors’ eyes in order to understand the frame of reference he is operating within, and thereafter one of the basic purposes of statecraft to use what means are available and appropriate to manoeuvre him into your preferred frame of reference or if this is not possible, to operate within the same frame in order to achieve your purposes. A stable modus vivendi can only be reached if all parties are operating within the same frame of reference. Are the US and China operating within the same frame of reference? I think they do substantially but not entirely and therefrom arises the complexity and risks of the relationship. Can they be brought within a common framework? That is not yet clear. …

If a new modus vivendi requires the US to acknowledge that different political systems can have their own legitimacy, it requires China to resist the temptations of triumphalist nationalism.

There’s a lot more, but I had to condense more than usual to keep this post from getting too long; a transcript and video of the full talk is at the link.


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