Vietnam to Diaoyu

I recently had the opportunity to host a group of 25 Vietnamese university students studying international trade in Beijing.  The Vietnamese embassy has been particularly helpful to us so I was happy to oblige their request to share my experience in China.

The students showed up looking like university students everywhere, I suspect, with their wool caps, ever-present ear buds, and not so subtly practiced looks of boredom and disengagement.  They looked younger than I recall looking at that age but otherwise notable only for their innocent fascination with how a natural material like sand is made into a seemingly unrelated product like glass.  (Modern society shields us from so much that happens behind the scenes of our lives.  Another blog.)

Having been an American teenage male during the latter half of the 1960’s, of course, the ‘Nam, as it came to be known, is forever seared into my consciousness.  I never served.  I was a year too young, as it turned out, but I did participate in the Selective Service draft and having an older brother whose notice might have arrived at any time Vietnam was a nightly topic at the family dinner table.

These students, of course, are living in a very different Vietnam than the one my generation came to know through the eyes of Walter Cronkite and the intrepid war correspondents who appeared nightly on our tv screens.  Today Vietnam is better known for its beautiful beach resorts than its rice paddies, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, and the Hanoi Hilton is a real hotel (There are actually two Hilton hotels in Hanoi today.) that people pay for the right to stay in.

But since the Vietnamese to whom I was speaking were all born in the decade of the 90’s, roughly two decades after the conflict ended, it is unlikely that any of them were pondering the same thoughts that I was as I spoke to them.

I was still pondering just a few days later, in fact, when China announced that it was establishing a 600-mile long air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that encompasses international waters separating China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  And, most importantly, the uninhabited but hotly contested islands that the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, which sit roughly 1500 miles northeast of Vietnam.

While the Chinese correctly point out that more than 20 countries, including the U.S. and Japan, maintain similar zones, the move nonetheless met with quick and strident opposition by the U.S., Japan, and Korea, all of whom maintain military aircraft in the area.  The U.S., in fact, immediately flew two unarmed B-52’s through the zone without following the new communication protocol although the flight had obviously been planned long beforehand.   (The Chinese merely observed.)

In the end I offer no expertise on matters of geo-political importance.  I am but a glassmaker.  I will nonetheless wade ever so tentatively into the frothing waters of international politics with a couple of personal observations from my front row seat here in Beijing.

First of all, I don’t believe the Chinese are generally interested in the acquisition of territory unless there is an overwhelming defensive need for it or it is an issue of protecting and/or uniting people of Chinese heritage.  Remember that China is the Middle Kingdom – the literal translation of the Chinese name for their country.

That’s ‘middle’ as in ‘middle of the civilized world.’  The rest of the world is literally the home to foreigners, who, whatever else they might be, do not enjoy the good fortune of being Chinese.  (See my blog Forever a Foreigner to learn more on the topic.)  I don’t believe it is a pejorative judgment as we might easily conclude.  But it is a line of distinction that can never be crossed.

The history of China, in fact, is the history of a country that can’t quite decide if it wants to engage the outside world or keep it at bay.  While fortifying the Great Wall in the early Sixteenth Century, the Ming Dynasty went so far as to voluntarily destroy the greatest sea-faring fleet ever assembled, kicking off centuries of self-imposed isolation instead of what might have been centuries of world domination.

One story, I think, says it all.  In the late 18th Century, King George III of England sent an ambassador, Lord Macartney, to the royal court of Emperor Qian Long, the 4th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, to convince him to establish diplomatic relations and trade between the countries.  The Emperor received the diplomatic party but ultimately sent them packing with a letter to King George reading, in part,  “…we possess all things.  I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

Secondly, the Chinese are pragmatists, and a quick scan of their history would clearly establish their credentials as experts of conflict.  The world’s first treatise on military strategy, in fact, The Art of War, written by Chinese general Sun Tzu long before the Birth of Christ, is still regarded around the world as the definitive text on the subject.  Throughout General Tzu emphasizes the importance of having a thorough and objective understanding of both thyself and thy enemy.

I think it is rather safe to say, therefore, that the Chinese have no wish to draw swords with the United States, who they know will stand by its allies in the region.  At least not with the intent of drawing actual blood.  (A review of my blog on the Chinese approach to negotiation might be helpful here.)

They are, nonetheless, a prideful people full of nationalism for their ethnicity and their country.  And this government, like all governments, one would hope, is sensitive to the expectations of its people.  And the Chinese people, rightfully so, are very proud of what they have accomplished through very hard work and sacrifice over the last couple of decades and believe that they deserve a little respect.

I believe we can expect, therefore, that China is going to assert its presence and its national interests more and more in the years ahead.  In the end, however, I think most analysts have it right in this case.  China is not going to take provocative action.  (There is always the chance of rogue behavior within a government of course.  These are, after all, rather large institutions often trying to hold together diverse coalitions of interests and outlook.)  But it won’t back down, either.  I see little chance that the Chinese will eliminate the zone altogether despite the outcry.

The Chinese, I suspect, are merely staking their claim for future negotiation, at which time they will repeatedly point out the then-established history of self-proclaimed right.  It reminds me, frankly, of an ongoing debate I have with the company from whom we buy natural gas.  We are a large customer, giving the supplier tremendous benefits of economy of scale, little of which they are willing to share through any price discount.

Whenever we ask for a discount they immediately counter with the circular argument that we are already enjoying a substantial discount because they could, in fact, be charging us much more than they already are.  (More on pricing in China in a future blog.)

They’re able to make such a specious argument stick, you see, because they have no competitors, due to the favorable zoning of the local government with whom they have extremely good relations.  (Monopolies are technically illegal under federal law.) We are, as a result, left with little leverage in the negotiation and forced to resort to the admittedly lame argument that if they had charged us more in the past we would have located our plant elsewhere.  (If they were inclined to smirk, as a Westerner might, such an empty proclamation would undoubtedly trigger one, since it is abundantly clear that glass plants are not easily moved from one locale to another.)

But that is exactly the kind of Aristotelian argument that falls on deaf ears here.  It’s just too linear, relying as it does, on an acceptance of the relative equality of cause and effect inherent in deductive reasoning.

As I’ve noted before, however, due to their Confucian/Taoist worldview the Chinese generally refuse to accept this relative equity, caring little about cause and everything about outcome.  Viewed in such rational isolation, outcome is all that matters, and, as previously noted, the desire to attain win-win solutions gives way to the quest for win-lose outcomes.

And as I noted in my previous blog on negotiation, moreover, if you are the one being asked to give something up (In this case, the defense zone.) a draw is the same as a victory.  Which is exactly where we inevitably end up in our ongoing negotiation with the natural gas company.  (That doesn’t mean you don’t try, however.  I believe we do earn ultimate concessions but they would not, for reasons of face, ever be openly acknowledged.)

And where, I suspect, the negotiation over the disputed air defense zone and the islands will ultimately end up as well.  The Chinese will, after the air defense identification zone has been in place a while, recognized or not, employ a similarly circular argument that there is simply no linear answer to.

The West will argue that it must come down.  China will argue that it’s already there and that they have already made substantial concessions by not making it bigger and/or enforcing it more aggressively.  And around and around the diplomats will go.

Westerners are inclined to view such negotiating tactics as just plain stubborn, a pejorative term suggesting an irrational refusal to listen to reason.  But reason, as defined by a Westerner, is deductive in nature, a form of reason given little weight by the inductively minded Chinese.  While they may behave in a stubborn fashion, particularly in a negotiation, they are not technically stubborn in the sense Westerners use the term.

They simply subscribe to a different worldview, one less concerned with cause and effect and more concerned with achieving the desired outcome through the skillful manipulation of the conflicting but inseparable forces of right and wrong, resulting in a holistic rather than digital view of what is and is not fair.

In the meantime the Chinese are going about their lives in much the same way the Vietnamese are.  The past is the past.  The future is the future.  What is and what might have been, while unable to occupy the same straight line, are but two points on a continuous circle.

The logic of cause and effect meets the logic of opposing but inseparable forces.
The logic of cause and effect meets the logic of opposing but inseparable forces.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.