Roger Cohen

A clash of Chinese and American exceptionalism

A June 7, 2013 file photo shows US President Barack Obama (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping heading for a bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A June 7, 2013 file photo shows US President Barack Obama (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping heading for a bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California. -- PHOTO: AFP 

SINGAPORE - Let us take it as a given that the post-1945 world order with the United States as dominant nation has begun to unravel, that China is rising to inherit the earth, that the unease of our times has much to do with that difficult transition, and that violent conflict is a normal accompaniment to the passing of the baton from one great power to the next. America stood tall at the end of World War II. It also stood on a vast field of corpses.

Let us further posit the farfetched hypothesis that humankind has learnt from history. It must then be determined to avoid another conflagration. Happy talk of hyper-connectivity is not enough. The dream of the victory of enlightened self-interest in the name of the collective good on a shrinking planet was an ephemeral late 20th-century illusion. What will matter, above all, is the capacity of the US and China to avoid fatal misunderstanding. In a state of mutual incomprehension, clashing interests will escalate.

How far China and America are from understanding each other became clear to me the other day as I listened to Mr George Yeo, the former Singaporean foreign minister. He set out his view of the United States as a "missionary" power filled with the righteous conviction that it must usher the earth to liberty and democracy, and of China as an anti-missionary power convinced by its own bitter experience of foreign domination that non-intervention in the affairs of other states is a necessary form of respect.

Far from cynical exploitation, Mr Yeo argued, China's non-judgmental approach to other powers was, above all, a reflection of its own history, a form of moral rectitude. The West's perception of Chinese bullying and ruthless mercantilism was just plain wrong.

Mr Yeo is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man with a deep knowledge of China and considerable experience of life in America. I can't help seeing cynicism in China's readiness to extract resources from the realms of dictators or democrats and its unreadiness to do as much as America in stopping Ebola or the killers who call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I am sure that for President Xi Jinping of China, the sight of America getting enmeshed in another Middle Eastern skirmish has its satisfactions. But Mr Yeo made me wonder. Can the missionary mindset begin to comprehend the non-missionary world view, or even accept such categorisation?

The core problem is two forms of exceptionalism, the American and the Chinese. The US is an idea, as well as a nation. Americans, even in a battle-scarred inward-looking moment such as the present, are hard-wired to the notion of their country as a beacon to humanity. President Barack Obama's foreign policy is unpopular in part because he has interpreted a popular desire to regroup as licence to be satisfied with hitting singles and avoiding strike-outs. That is the attitude of an unexceptional nation, which can never be America's self-image.

But Chinese exceptionalism is no less powerful. It holds up China as a uniquely non-expansionist power over millennia of history, bringing harmony in a Confucian expression of its benevolence - a China standing in contrast to the predatory West.

The Communist Party, with its mantra of "peaceful rise", has fashioned an effective pillar of its ideology through the integration of Middle Kingdom thought. As Joe Studwell, author of How Asia Works, put it to me in an e-mail, the party with "not much socialism to cling to, has reached into Middle Kingdom exceptionalism by resurrecting Confucius, starting Confucius Institutes all over the world".

The result, as Associate Professor Yuan-kang Wang, from Western Michigan University, has written in Foreign Policy, is a widespread belief in "historical China as a shining civilisation in the centre of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture".

Exceptionalism, in all its forms, is tenacious. Tell Tibetans about China's peace-loving culture. Tell Iraqis about America's dedication to liberty. The contradictions, and failings, within the beliefs do not diminish them.

I believe, still, in the overall beneficence of American power, the fundamental yearning of the human spirit for freedom, and the unique American identification with that desire. Mr Xi's clampdown on the Internet, his attempt to clean up corruption when corruption must be endemic to any one-party state, his expansionism in the South China Sea, and his difficulties with a stubborn pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong all strike me as demonstrating the internal contradictions of "harmony" and "peace" within a Chinese system that has generated prosperity but increasingly stifles the open debate that more prosperous people want.

Europeans, with their experience of 20th-century devastation, would argue that all forms of exceptionalism are dangerous, the missionary and non-missionary equally so. They have settled for less in the interests of quiet.

America and China will not do that in the foreseeable future and, so, their relationship must be viewed with guarded pessimism. In war's aftermath, there are no exceptions to human suffering.