Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How framing the question makes all the difference: US-Chinese relations

Someone on Quora posted a question which I felt compelled to answer at length. I thought the question itself rather bad, but answering it brought out some interesting aspects of the relationship between the US and China. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated the way in which a poorly-framed question can almost automatically elicit shallow answers, in a form of begging the question.
Here was the question: 

And my answer:
The question is a rather oversimplified one, because neither the US nor China thinks of itself in those purely competitive terms. 
First of all, the phrase "as powerful as..." is extremely vague. "Powerful" can refer to military power, or economic prowess, or cultural influence over average people around the world, or diplomatic influence, and probably lots of other elements. Nor is it a simple equation in any one of those spheres: the US may have more military power overall than Vietnam, but who won the war there?
Secondly, the US and China are not enemies. We are adversaries, but that's not the same thing. 
During the Cold War, it was very important for the US and the USSR to compete with each other directly for power in every possible sphere. But the US and China are not existential threats to each other, and so they do not have to think of each other in those terms.
There is something common to both the US and China — a mixture of naïveté and maturity — that makes this kind of "who is more powerful" comparison rather alien to both national characters.
Both the US and China see themselves in rather insular terms. China is "The Middle Kingdom." The US is "A City on a Hill" and "The Land of the Free." Each is self-absorbed. Each tends to ignore the perspectives of the rest of the world. Each thinks its own position is self-evidently correct, and wonders why anyone could possibly disagree. This is their naiveté.
Note that this is very different from the way many other countries see themselves. Other countries may fight passionately, and sometimes militarily, but they don't see themselves as bathed in righteousness the way Americans and Chinese do. If you put one of their statesmen under some sort of truth serum and asked him, "If you were suddenly wearing the uniform of the other side, what would you do," they would tell you "I would fight just as vehemently for them." If you asked the same question of an American or a Chinese leader, they would literally be unable to answer the question. They cannot see that there is another side to any issue, even when there is.
Both the US and China primarily care about whatever it is that they see as being in their interest. They don't fundamentally care who is more "powerful." They care about getting their own way, about pursuing their own interests around the world, but that's different.
And here's where their naiveté becomes maturity: neither one of them is particularly absorbed in that schoolyard bullying about who could beat up whom. Unlike some other countries (Russia?), neither America nor China sees "power" as an end in itself. They're focused on their interests, and of course one has to have the means to pursue one's interests. But if America's interests — or what it believes are its interests — are not threatened by China, America doesn't care who is "more powerful." It's mostly the same for the Chinese.
(Caveat: the Chinese are somewhat more focused on "power," because of their cultural emphasis on "face" — and because of the past century and a half of humiliating powerlessness. But still, the Chinese are far more focused on achieving their specific interests, than on having more "power" than any particular country.)
The question of "power" really only arises because of the often very deep disagreements about what is in our interests. China is a dictatorship, while the US still (mostly) believes in basic rights. China believes its territorial claims are automatically valid, while the US has doubts. China is afraid that America's allies will form a kind of sea wall around it, cutting off maritime routes. China is a mercantilist country that seeks to protect domestic enterprises from overseas competition, while the US is still (mostly) committed to (mostly-)free trade. These disagreements give rise to conflicts, which make the issue of "my dad could beat up your dad" more relevant than it would have to be, given the basic cultures of the two countries.
Of course, there are elements within each country that are indeed focused on the one-on-one comparison. There are the nationalist citizens who seek to gain reflected glory from their country's power. And of course there are national-security professionals whose job it is to prepare for worst-case conflicts. The latter class in each country should, as the saying goes, "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
But in terms of the average person or the government in America — which is what this question asked about — they don't fundamentally care if China is "more powerful" than the United States. 
Nor, fundamentally, do the Chinese. They want to ensure that their lives are improving, first and foremost. They want to ensure that they never again endure the kind of national humiliation that they've endured in the past. But do they fundamentally care if America is "more powerful" than China? As long as America keeps its nose out of what they see as their own business, they really don't.

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