Foreign Policy – Friction is to be Expected

A Chinese colleague with a top shelf post-graduate education once told me that the Chinese are more than happy to make personal sacrifices in the interest of a strong central government.  “Without it,” he said, “We’ll just fight among ourselves.  History is certainly proof of that.”

When behavioral obligation turns on personal relationship rather than an absolute code of virtuous conduct he may have a point.  After all, if it’s okay to jump in front of a stranger in a checkout line or cut off another driver with a legitimate right of way at an intersection where do you draw the line of restraint?

Day to day exchanges can, in fact, be a bit feisty at times here in the Middle Kingdom.  Even close friends raise their voices with each other in what sounds more like barking than dialogue.  And when there’s business at stake the only way to know you’re close to a deal is if there’s a little dander in the air.  Walking away, or storming out, if it’s a really big deal, is commonplace in a negotiation.

It is true that personal grudges can be carried for a long time.  Those, however, generally involve some act of spite or loss of face.  In the day-to-day barter that is life in a land of 1.3 billion people a little friction is to be expected when it comes to the day to day stuff.

My former boss, a lifelong New Yorker, wasn’t all that different.  His partner often said, “George (not his real name, obviously) likes to start every conversation with, ‘F_ck you, just in case.’

The Chinese would never employ such an aggressive offense.  Such a strategy, in fact, would have little effect here.  It’s almost impossible to put the Chinese on the defensive.  If you’ve ever watched the Chinese martial arts you know that defense is all about blunting the opponent’s offense until an opportunity for a counter-attack presents itself.  There is only yin and yang, not yin and yin.  Provocation requires a certain cooperative vulnerability that the Chinese seldom exhibit.

Under any circumstances, while many Western cultures seek to eliminate all friction from daily life the Chinese are more likely to accept that life is just a little messy.  “Wherever you go, there you are.”  It is what it is.

At a news conference following the close of the 2014 National People’s Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Premier Li Keqiang offered these observations:  (From an English summary of the Premier’s remarks published in China Daily.)


“When neighbors interact with each other, it is only natural that some times they will run into problems of one kind or another…”


“Due to different cultural and historical backgrounds and development stages, it is natural for the two countries to have some differences on certain matters and frictions in cooperation…”


“Being each other’s biggest trading partners, it is natural that the two encounter some trade frictions.”

The point is clear.  A little friction is to be expected in life.  The question is not how to preclude dispute, but how to resolve it.

Contrast that perspective with the significant and laudable efforts in the U.S. to combat bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of inappropriate social aggression and discrimination.  There the emphasis is clearly on prevention rather than resolution.  As it should be, of course, since these are extreme cases and there is no acceptable resolution once the aggression has been committed.

Nonetheless, I find it telling that Premier Li is not suggesting that the offending party must commit itself to understanding root cause in the interest of eliminating trade or political friction.  His plea is merely to resolve these inevitable disputes through harmonious and respectful dialogue.

Which could, of course, be interpreted to suggest that the issues at stake do not involve absolute norms of right and wrong.  The correct resolution, in other words, is relative, not absolute.  It depends on both context and perspective.  And the Chinese, he seems to be saying, will most certainly have their perspective.

That certainly fits with the circular and relative Chinese worldview.  When everything flows from the relative balance of opposing forces the result is an endless spectrum of gray.  Absolutes just don’t exist.

If a little friction among friends is to be expected I suspect part of the reason, beyond their holistic worldview, has to do with survival in a land of so many people who have had so little for so long.  The children of large rural families without enough to eat, one has to assume, are naturally more aggressive at defending themselves than their well-fed urban cousins.

And once again I think the receiver-oriented nature of Chinese communication must come into play.  A refusal to engage will quickly neutralize even the most aggressive verbal assault.  Which means, of course, that a receiver-oriented communicator (e.g., the Chinese) can quickly frustrate a transmitter-oriented communicator (e.g. the Americans) by simply ignoring the transmission, which, to the receiver-oriented communicator, is perfectly reasonable and civil, since obligation and right both reside with the receiver, not the transmitter.

In the foreign policy arena, therefore, I think lecturing the Chinese will have little effect and may prove counter-productive.  Since they are unlikely to be willing receivers anyway, the resulting frustration will only escalate the tension without offsetting benefit.

In the end, I believe, the Chinese have a completely different foreign policy agenda than the Americans and other Western powers.  Whereas the Americans seem determined to convince others to acknowledge the superiority of their values and principles, I believe the Chinese seek only harmonious solutions to problems that impact them.

The Chinese, in the end, have no desire to be like anyone other than who they are.  Nor, on the other hand, are they preoccupied with their assimilation into the global community at any personal or philosophical level.

They obviously want to participate in the world economy and they want to maintain peace in their neighborhood.  I don’t believe, however, that they have any desire to be ‘the world’s policeman’, as it were.  Unless there is a direct risk to their sovereignty or their ability to pursue their internal agenda of harmonious development they simply don’t see the need.  Without a black and white moral backdrop against which to evaluate right and wrong it is impossible to draw the stark moral lines in the sand necessary to justify unilateral political or military solutions.

The Chinese do, nonetheless, want the respect and the cooperation of world powers.  They’ve earned a seat at the table and they fully intend to take it.  As well they should, I think.

But it is balance, not domination, which they seek to achieve.  And if that involves raising a little dust along the way, so be it.  While yin and yang wrestle to harmonious neutrality there is bound to be a little friction.

The key for the West, I believe, is not to let the dust become a distraction to the real issues at hand – the line where yin and yang meet and transmitter and receiver engage.

The Chinese are universally comfortable in their own skin.  They have no aspirations to be anything other than Chinese.
The Chinese are universally comfortable in their own skin. They have no aspirations to be anything other than Chinese.