Understanding How Culture and History Impact China’s International Relations: The Case of the South China Sea
Is China an up-and-coming aggressor determined to govern the global order? That seems to be the conventional view among some Western pundits and politicians. From snubbing former U.S. President Obama upon his arrival at last year’s G20 summit, to not participating in the arbitration of the South China Sea territorial dispute, China appears intent on throwing its weight around as it rises to prominence on the international stage.
While it’s true that the People’s Republic of China jealously protects its national interests, the conventional view is problematic because it lacks the broad historical-cultural perspective that is necessary for evaluating Chinese behavior. As Israel continues to strengthen its connection to the Middle Kingdom, it’s important that Israel’s leaders know how to assess Chinese behavior independently of the Western conventional wisdom. The 2016 South China Sea ruling is helpful for illustrating what the Western perspective misses.
In July, 2016, an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against Chinese claims to “historic rights” in the South China Sea and in favor of the Philippines. After the decision, The Economist articulated the conventional wisdom as follows, “The judgment could… in the long run, force China to choose what sort of country it wants to be—one that supports rules-based global regimes, or one that challenges them in pursuit of great-power status.”
The problem with this formulation is that it projects a Western cultural perspective onto the Chinese. From the Chinese perspective there is no black and white dichotomy, either this or that. For the Chinese, things can be grey, complicated and in many cases contradictory. What’s more, living with contradictions is completely acceptable.
This Chinese capacity to live without absolute clarity or decisive solutions, the product of a long history that has chastened any ambition to master reality, likewise informs Chinese foreign policy. Instead of either supporting a rules-based global regime or challenging it, the Chinese are intent on protecting their “historic rights” and, as such, their domestic stability and security, while learning on the fly how to adapt to the international system. However, the legalistic approach adopted by the international community in resolving the South China Sea dispute not only failed to actually solve the problem ─ the approach didn’t change anything on the ground ─ it is liable, in conditions of extremity, to destabilize the country.