President Obama has done his best to convince the Chinese leadership that he considers China an equal to the United States. Unfortunately he has missed the essential point of Chinese thinking. The Chinese believe they are superior to the United States -- and every other country.
Part of this belief grows out of the sense of superiority that is an intrinsic part of Han culture. It perhaps does not fit in with the occidental idiom of international diplomacy that calls for a pretense at modesty, but it well fits the deep-seated, if carefully obscured, Chinese mindset.
An old Asian hand, the late Donald Wise, ex-Japanese POW and eventually an editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, put it this way: "The Westerner rarely understands that no matter how obsequious any Asian, especially the Chinese, may seek to act, he always will consider you a lesser human being. The Japanese show it more often and appear to need to ultimately display their dominance, but the Chinese are far more clever at hiding their true feelings and exercise their strength only when it is most advantageous."
In more academic terms Dominic Lieven has noted in his book, The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, "… few Chinese have ever doubted the absolute superiority of their culture…" He further quotes a contemporary Chinese expert as speaking of "an innate, almost visceral, Han sense of superiority."
This has certainly been the case in Beijing's handling of the new Obama Administration and President Obama himself -- even though the American president has shown no sign of noticing any slight. In fact, as the Financial Times's Geoff Dyer and Edward Luce have written regarding Obama's recent visit to Beijing: " …Mr. Obama formally conceded that in today's world the U.S. can get only so far without China's help."
This of course plays to the firm Chinese belief in their ultimate cultural, and now financial, superiority. While perhaps a necessary device in diplomatic placation of Beijing, such kowtowing does not provide any leverage for the U.S. in terms of its own strategic interests. The problem that exists is that President Obama and his White House advisers think it does.
Like so many Westerners who in the past thought that they could "out-clever" the Chinese, the White House now thinks it has evolved a special relationship with Beijing in the creation of a unique financial partnership that it is happy to have the media characterize as the "G-2." Regarding China, sympathetic Washington pundits have taken to referring to "the new more pragmatic approach of Obama."
Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, what possibly is viewed by him as pragmatism is judged by the always superior Chinese leadership as an exploitable opportunity. The idea of the United States teaching China how to be a friendly global power is ludicrous. The Chinese were developing economic contacts in Africa as early as the 1960s, and have played the game of patron of the Third World since the decade before that.
It is possible to suggest that the Obama diplomatic methodology of excessive courtesy, characterized by some as fawning, is an excellent device that is far more effective than the "cowboy" character of the White House during the Bush years. It indeed would be possible to say this if there was any sign that the Chinese in turn have assumed any global responsibility to go along with having been anointed by President Obama an equal to the United States.
The truth is that Beijing, Washington's banker, delights in its role as a financial tutor to the United States that has so egregiously mismanaged its finances. The Chinese are quite secure in counseling their American government counterparts to roll back domestic programs while cutting back international military commitments. The Beijing administration sounds positively -- paleo-conservative. How clever is that?
It might be well for the current White House to remember that the Chou empire of c.1000 B.C. believed their land occupied the middle of the earth, and that they were surrounded by barbarians. The communists renamed their country Zhonghua renmin gonghequo (middle glorious republican country), translated into English as, the People's Republic of China. This Middle Kingdom still believes it is surrounded by barbarians. President Obama would do well to recognize the fact that this is not going to change.
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