China: Defending its Core Interest in the World

After speculation to the contrary, President Hu Jintao confirmed that he’s coming to Washington for upcoming nuclear proliferation talks. Not long after, Washington announced a delay in announcing any decision on whether China has been judged a “currency manipulator,” a dictum Congress requires that the US make on each country by April 15.

What’s more, Hu’s hour-long phone conversation with President Barack Obama on April 1 leading to these announcements could signal a much-needed thaw in US-China relations. It’s about time. Here in Beijing, in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the White House, the Taiwan arms sales and Google’s retreat to Hong Kong, one can’t help escape a growing chill towards America. And in Washington, fair or not, many have come to view US conciliatory gestures over the past year as having failed to elicit equal response from Beijing.

Indeed, since coming to office, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to signal its desire for friendlier relations with China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama both displayed an unusual solicitude towards their hosts on their respective trips to China.

Among other concessions, Clinton promised that human rights issues could not stand in the way of the two countries tackling global problems like the economic crisis or climate change, and Obama even postponed his October meeting with the Dalai Lama in hopes of smoothing the way to a successful November summit. In Washington’s view, Beijing responded in a most unreciprocal fashion in Copenhagen and then harped on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and currency exchange, chilling promise for more collaboration.

Then came the Google furor, which deeply unsettled Chinese officialdom. After all, here was the most dynamic, iconic company in the world suddenly walking away from part of its business in the most rapidly growing market in the world. Chinese blogs and chat rooms have been ablaze with defensive rebuttals to the company’s departure and its implicit critique of Communist Party’s ground rules for foreign IT companies operating in the China market. Many insist that internet “filtering” – it’s rarely referred to as “censorship” here – is simply part of China’s quotidian rules and regulations for doing business.

Given China’s new militancy, even truculence, many in Washington began to wonder if the Chinese really do want friendlier relations? And if they do, don’t they understand the concept of reciprocity?

The truth is that Beijing does want better relations, but often this aspiration gets lost in clumsy political bluster. Curiously, the notion of reciprocity is not alien to China. In fact, the idea is deeply rooted in its own Confucian tradition.

The Analects, or "Lunyu", the classic of Confucian political philosophy that sinologist Simon Leys described as being “to Confucius what the Gospels are to Jesus,” provides a virtual roadmap for creating and maintaining mutually reinforcing relationships. In The Analects, written around 500 BCE, the Sage tells one of his disciples that his doctrine has only “one single thread running through it.” What is it? “Loyalty and reciprocity, and that’s all,” he replies.

Another disciple asks, “Is there any single word that should guide one’s entire life?” and Confucius replies, “Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

In classical Chinese, the character used for the idea of “reciprocity” is shu, which carries a broader resonance of “tolerance,” “generosity” and even willingness to “excuse,” “forgive” and “show mercy.” It also implies that one’s actions towards others – or by implication between countries – invariably conditions their responses, and vice-versa, in an endless dialectic chain of cause and effect.

In the Confucian universe of "shu", a concession made as a demonstration of good intention should not simply be accepted by the recipient as something “won,” but should serve as a catalytic gesture which then presents an opportunity, even an obligation, for the counterpart to reciprocate with a comparable gesture.

So, what has prevented Beijing from re-embracing this Confucian notion? Aside from the fact that Confucianism was savagely attacked and denied by Chinese revolutionaries during the past century, a fear that manifesting an abundance of shu might make China appear too conciliatory, thus weak, has also served as an impediment. President Obama learned something himself about appearing too weak when he was criticized at home for his seemingly supine deportment in Beijing. The Chinese explanation for their own posture is that issues like Tibet, social stability, Taiwan arms sales, are all “hexinliyi,” or, “core interests,” which brook no compromise.

As State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who oversees China’s foreign policy, explains, “China’s number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security; next is state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.” But, with so many interests coming under the rigid rubric “core,” only a narrow margin of territory remains for Chinese diplomats to maneuver and actually negotiate.

Over the past century and a half, the Chinese have come to view international relations as a ruthless competition in which the interests of weak nations like China were almost always trumped by the more powerful. But given its recent rise and new economic power, the idea of China as a victim or a world unto itself as in the Mao era, in a universe where one nation’s gain is always another’s loss, is increasingly outmoded and counterproductive. After all, China has become an ever more prominent member of the global community. As a member of the WTO, it has benefited enormously from the transnational web of connectivity arising around the advance of globalization. Thus, it is somewhat disingenuous for its leaders to imagine that they can irrevocably corral off whole hemispheres of activity as lying completely outside the sphere of common interest. Simply put, with the benefits of global citizenship come new obligations of global responsibility

One way that the US can help China’s leaders feel more comfortable with these new responsibilities and adopt a more reciprocal posture in negotiating them is to ensure that friendly gestures are embraced in a way that allows China to see how such interactions can convey a new self-confidence and magnanimity rather than weakness.

There’s little time to waste. The Obama-Hu conversation has created a new, unexpected moment of thaw in an increasingly frozen relationship, but the moment could pass. After all, it’s still possible that the US-China relations could become derailed in American acrimony over the loss of jobs to China, the US imbalance of payments, the vagaries of currency exchange, or over leadership disagreements or civil unrest in China.

Many issues still divide the two countries. But, Chinese leaders should not fail to appreciate that Obama and Clinton have extended a new hand of friendship. If China’s leaders truly want better relations, now is the time to recognize that these intentions are genuine and find their own ways to respond in kind.

If China’s future increasingly depends on Beijing being more flexible and reciprocal, then there’s no better place to look than its own traditions.

Orville Schell is director of the Center for US-China Relations at the Asia Society and founder of “The Initiative for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change." This is published with the permission of YaleGlobal Online, the publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.