How culture affects Sino-US ties

Business Times - 08 Dec 2010

How culture affects Sino-US ties

Gap between their cultures is bridgeable, and when the two interact, resulting synergy can be very attractive and exciting


THEORISTS of international relations who belong to the 'realist' school of thought have focused a lot of attention recently on the relationship between a dominant power whose interests lie in the maintenance of the global status quo and a rising power that is inclined to challenge the existing balance of power.

The 'realists' are those who tend to place an emphasis on the role that national interest and security considerations - as opposed to ideology and culture factors - play in the formation of foreign policy.

One of the interesting questions that fascinates these scholars is why the collision between one rising power - Germany - and a status quo one - Britain - ended up igniting two long and costly wars in the 20th century, while a similar clash between an emerging player - the United States - and a declining power - Britain again - was managed in a more peaceful way.

Britain and its former colonies in North America did clash on the battlefield, but after the middle of the 19th century, British leaders seemed to accept the notion encapsulated in the Monroe Doctrine - and in the Roosevelt Corollary to that doctrine - that the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as the US sphere of influence and that Washington would have the right to prevent Britain (and other European powers) from interfering militarily in the affairs of countries in the region.

Later on, in the first part of the 20th century as Britain was losing its economic and military power, it started to rely on US strategic and financial support (in the two world wars) for its survival and had no choice but to pass the torch of the global hegemon to the United States.

Yet when scholars and pundits discuss and apply historical analogies to the current economic and military rise of China and its relationship with the US - the power that is maintaining the global status quo - almost no one suggests that Sino-American relationship would resemble to one between the US and Britain.

The conventional wisdom is that China and the US are more likely to experience the tensions that existed between a hostile and antagonistic Germany and an insecure Britain and that led eventually to two bloody military catastrophes.

While there are many reasons that explain why the clash between Britain and the US evolved into a partnership while the clash between the Brits and the Germans led to two horrific wars, culture did play a role in both instances.

In addition to historical ties and a common language, members of the American and British political and business elites shared similar traditions and worldviews and a strong commitment to liberal-democratic and commercial values.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the tensions between Britain and the US were handled a la 'it's-all-in-the-family' attitude. But there is no doubt that common language and cultural codes made it easier to overcome the occasional misunderstandings and prevent them from igniting full-blown diplomatic and military conflicts.

And while Britain and Germany were both European and Christian nations - after all, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was the cousin of the British King George V - a huge cultural gap did divide the German and British elites and made it more difficult to bridge their differences. Other factors include their naval competition and a struggle for new colonies.

More specifically, the German elites, reflecting the values of a powerful Prussian military caste and a romantic national heritage, were driven by strong commitment to militarism and chauvinism. British leaders and businessmen - not unlike their American counterparts - were raised in a cultural environment that celebrated commerce and pragmatism.

These cultural tensions between the Prussian militarists and the English merchants helped create a geostrategic setting which was less conducive to compromise and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

From that perspective, the current cultural divide between the businessmen and lawyers who dominate American politics and economics and the communist party bosses and engineers who rule China is even wider than the gap between the one that had separated the militarists in Berlin and the merchants in London in the early 20th century.

While it is true that the Chinese are trying to build a thriving capitalist economy, theirs is a state-managed version that remains controlled by the government and committed to collective and nationalist values.

The American version of capitalism, on the other hand, is grounded in the tradition of the market that is centred on the ambition and success of the individual and is free (mostly) from the constraints of the state.

And that is just one aspect among many - history, language, religion - that highlight the contrast between the two cultures.

Indeed, with the exception of dining at their local Chinese restaurant and buying made-in-China products in the shopping mall, most Americans have very little exposure to Chinese culture which they still regard as alien and exotic. And Chinese diplomats and businessmen who work in the US are doing very little to bridge the gap.

In fact, I am always astonished to discover that despite many years of diplomatic, business and cultural interaction between the US and China, Chinese officials who appear occasionally on American television or in public forums in this country (the US) seem to lack a basic understanding of what makes Americans tick, and quite frequently their manner of speaking and gesturing seems to be stiff and humourless.

Now contrast the politicians, business leaders and cultural figures from Taiwan and Hong Kong or, for that matter, Singapore, who visit this country and who seem much more in tune with its cultural traits and who are quite successful in getting their message across on television and elsewhere.

Chinese-Americans have certainly been one of the most successful immigrant groups in this country and who occupy now important positions in politics, business and culture.

In short, the gap between American and Chinese culture is bridgeable, and when the two interact, the resulting synergy can be very attractive and exciting. But unfortunately, this could be a long process taking several generations and would require hard work on both sides.

Let's hope that the Chinese and the Americans will be able to cross that bridge sooner than later and prevent the inevitable Big Crisis between the two from getting out of hand.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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