Seeing the world through China’s eyes

Susan Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower, noted in an interview at China Digital Times:

To get anywhere diplomatically you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person sitting across from you at the table. I traveled with Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji when they visited the U.S. and joined many meetings with them. I have met Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as well. In their informal comments as well as their formal statements they make no secret of their worries about China’s political stability. But the leaders do try to hide differences of opinion over foreign and domestic policy which undoubtedly exist.

I’m with Shirk. How the US, or any country, can make foreign policy without trying to understand how an interlocutor sees the world is beyond me. As such, I think that was the thinking behind Admiral Keating’s offer of help on aircraft carrier development; looking through the eyes of the PLA Navy, Keating seemed to recognize that China might have legitimate reasons for wanting an aircraft carrier, and from there sought to provide practical advice from a navy that has been operating carrier groups for decades.

A recent article by Richard Halloran spells out Keating’s thinking in more detail, and notes that among the five reasons why China might develop an aircraft carrier — international prestige, power projection, defending lifelines, regional rivalry, and relief operations — attacking Taiwan is not one of them. Indeed, there seems to be little in Halloran’s list that would result in war. Rather, after decades of watching US carriers show the flag, especially in the Taiwan Straits, it should hardly be surprising that China wants a similar platform.

So China’s reaction to the Pentagon report is understandable: the US report is drafted from the perspective that the decision by China to develop its conventional and nuclear forces is an insult, as well as a threat, to the US. Clearly we’re not threatening you, it thinks, so why should you need to modernize your armed forces? (Ed. — How can a report think? Quiet, you.)

But is the Pentagon really incapable of appreciating the fact that China might have legitimate reasons for military modernization that have nothing to do with threatening the US directly? And, does the Pentagon realize that the US pursuit of military predominance can last only as long as other countries are deterred? Once a country decides to develop an advanced military the jig is up; the US needs to think of more creative approaches to a country with a sophisticated military, other than insisting, “From where we stand, you’re not threatened.” It seems that’s what Admiral Keating is groping towards.

To connect Keating to Shirk, the admiral is trying look at the world through Beijing’s eyes and alter the US Military’s approach to China so that it acknowledges that China has legitimate interests that may require an advanced military. That does not mean acquiescing entirely — Keating clearly communicated American concerns, after all — it simply means acknowledging that the world looks different from Beijing than it does from Washington.

I should note that I do not think that the US will be helping China with aircraft carriers anytime soon — nor should it, at least not for now. But this is yet another sign of a new flexibility in US Asia policy; the old San Francisco system of bilateral alliances is simultaneously being agglomerated, as the US, Japan, and Australia seek to deepen trilateral ties, and de-prioritized, with the US less inclined — in practice, if not in rhetoric — to view the region as marked by stark, clear divisions.

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