A Paper Cat?

In the days following the ruling of an international arbitration tribunal at The Hague that supported the Philippines in its ongoing spat with China over claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, the US has been pushing its global allies to put pressure on Beijing to act in accordance with the ruling.

Beijing, for its part, never participated in the arbitration and denounced the decision, preferring to see the issue as a matter of sovereignty over which the tribunal has no authority. Such issues, it maintains, should be worked out by direct negotiation between the two parties.

Recently, however, Australia joined Japan and the US in publicly taking Beijing to task and it drew a very sharp rebuke in language deemed quite excessive by the standards of Western diplomacy. The Global Times, a state-owned media outlet known for its strong nationalist positions, ran an editorial over the weekend in which it suggested that Australia was “an ideal target for China to warn and strike.”

The editorial then went on to insult Australia, noting that it was once an English penal colony established “with the tears of the aboriginals.” It concluded by suggesting that the Aussie nation was more of a ‘paper cat’ than a ‘paper tiger’, noting that Australia’s power “means nothing compared to the security of China.”

One Australian diplomat suggested it was the rudest piece of diplomacy he had ever encountered.

But therein lies the problem. Western diplomats continue to evaluate Chinese behavior through a Western lens. As a result we both misinterpret the Chinese and are prone to see monsters in the shadows.

Through a Chinese lens I don’t believe the editorial was all that belligerent. Now, if the Chinese were to sink an Australian ship, that would be belligerent. I find that, however, to be highly unlikely.

In Western culture we put great stock in words. If you are a public figure and use the wrong one, you will find yourself in a pot of boiling indignation. We value honesty and integrity, so we naturally take the meaning and validity of words very seriously.

Chinese culture, however, emphasizes obligation and face and thus puts far more emphasis on behavior than mere words.

Not understanding this distinction, I have found many Westerners to be challenged when negotiating with the Chinese. They try to be nice and find the elusive win-win solution when the Chinese, for their part, are looking for a win-lose victory.

As a result, Westerners often confuse the Chinese they are negotiating with because they don’t make it crystal clear what their bottom line is. The Chinese may or may not accept that bottom line but they won’t stop trying to achieve their own bottom line until they know what yours is.

That, I believe, was the primary purpose of the editorial. Now we know.

The Chinese are pragmatists. Australia and China have two of the most integrated economies in the world and the Australian navy is not the US navy.

There are many Chinese who do believe that the tribunal’s ruling was a slap in the face of Chinese sovereignty and I’m sure President Xi Jinping is under some internal pressure to take a harder line in responding to it.

As I’ve noted before, I don’t believe the US is helping its pivot to Asia in publicly tweaking the nose of Beijing. They are just making things more difficult.

But President Xi is firmly in control and I wouldn’t hesitate to travel to Australia in the future.

We do, however, have to stop evaluating China through an American lens. They aren’t ‘just like us’ and we should be okay with that.

Contact: You may reach the author at understanding china@yahoo.com