Did style differences cause China-US rift?

By Ei Sun Oh Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/25 17:33:41

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



A trade war looms large between the United States and China which are not only the two largest economies but also two superpowers with tremendous strategic means consequential to the world. There is widespread speculation and conjecture as to what would have led to the stalemate or perceived rivalry. Is it due to misunderstanding or miscalculation of each other's intentions?

There can be a lot of dimensions to such miscues. After all, the two countries undertook different politico-economic and socio-cultural pathways in their development journeys. The United States, for example, practices almost unbridled capitalism and liberal democracy, while China, at least since the onset of the reform and opening-up process 40 years ago, adopted socialism with Chinese characteristics as its developmental model.

Most Southeast Asian countries are in a unique position to observe the differences between China and the United States, and even how the two major powers might have viewed each other in their respective tunnel visions. This is because over the years Southeast Asian countries have traded heavily with both the economies and have also dealt diplomatically with them in large measure, besides having built strong civil-society bonds with the peoples and institutions of both China and the United States.

One crucial methodological difference between the two superpowers when it comes to worldview and national behavior has to do with the mismatch between "compartmentalization," which is more favored by the United States, and "generalization," which is preferred by China. It would appear that Americans tend to compartmentalize the various aspects of their interactions toward each other. On the level of individuals, this would be expressed, for example, in divorced couples still going into business together despite their hitherto acrimonious marital relationship. Internationally, the United States similarly compartmentalizes - for example criticizing the human rights records of a number of Southeast Asian countries yet still maintaining vibrant trading ties and strategic cooperation with them. 

In addition, the Americans prefer "arm's length" relations with even the closest of their partners and allies. The latest rounds of trade disputes triggered by the US President Donald Trump's administration, for example, target not only China, but also neighboring Canada as well as European Union countries, which are all supposed to be America's friends. Back in the 1980s, when Donald Trump was still just another hotel tycoon, the Reagan administration was already engineering an economic curb on Japan, a treaty ally, through the by-now infamous Plaza Accord.

By contrast, Chinese appear to expect total or "generalized" goodwill when dealing with each other. Our experience in China teaches us that we must first develop guanxi, or close relationship, with our Chinese hosts before substantial business relationship can be developed and hopefully flourish. By the same example, when our trading ties with China are improving by leaps and bounds, as has been the case in recent years, it would appear that a certain "camaraderie" or solidarity is expected of us, that we should, for example, side more with China when it comes to the big-powers game.

We are somewhat queasy with the American "segregation" of the various aspects of our bilateral relationship with them to such an extent that sometimes arguments flare over the now doomed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, but counter-terrorism cooperation went on smoothly behind the scenes. We can only imagine that if we, when dealing with both superpowers, have to be put in such awkward situations, the chances of even greater mismatch are high when the two superpowers with their vastly different historical and ideological baggages meet and deal with each other directly.

The various foreign and trade policy flip-flops associated with the Trump administration would appear at first sight to be both unprecedented and insurmountable. But even such back and forth possesses its own compartmentalized characteristics. For example, while Trump talked and acted big in terms of trade differences and economic comparisons, he seldom ventured into strategic or geopolitical realm of his own accord, unless the situation was exigent as in the case of North Korea. He focuses on his economic-centric "America First" campaign promise. And he will have to wage another presidential campaign in just a few more months' time.

While all countries must be constantly vigilant about their overall strategic interests, when dealing with Trump's America it is perhaps more advisable to focus more on economic terms at least for the next few years such that the overall strategic balance between superpowers can still be carefully maintained for the benefit of mankind.

The author is Principal Adviser, Pacific Research Center, Malaysia. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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