Sino-U.S. Relations: Reconsider the Fundamentals

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The resolution of a seemingly intractable problem only comes with identification of the primary causes. In the conduct of international relations this technique often results in discussions focused on domestic expectations and ideological perspectives. Occasionally, conversations concerning differences in weltanschauung--one's "world view"--come to the fore. But only occasionally. This is particularly true in Washington, where American policymakers have decreed democracy is the panacea for all that ails the planet and our national security strategy is firmly aimed at realizing Thomas Jefferson's inalienable rights.

There is much to be said of seeking to maximize access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Certainly we can all agree on the definition of life. What constitutes liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an entirely different problem. Liberty, in political philosophy, can be broadly defined as the degree to which an individual is allowed to act in accordance with his or her own will. For many Americans this means government must be prevented from acting as a surrogate parent. Oh, we understand it should be illegal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, but are deeply offended when Washington is found to be curtailing access to activities or materials that we individually do not perceive to be a threat to the common good.

Think about this for a moment. We, the American citizenry, hold dear a concept of liberty that requires an astonishing level of trust in our fellow man. In the United States, government officials are restrained in their ability to impose limits on our individual will. This restraint comes as a result of a fundamental--yet largely unspoken--societal faith in the rationality of our fellow citizens. Given the quality and performance of no small number of our elected officials it may be time to rethink that faith. But I am not so foolish as to believe we Americans are ready to radically alter our social contract.

Before turning to the pursuit of happiness, allow me to spend a few moments discussing liberty as understood by the Chinese Communist Party. In Beijing, liberty is a political concept that is subject to bureaucratic whims and the evolving demands of 1.3 billion citizens. Chinese politicians believe there is a need for a strict limit on individual liberty in order to provide for the greater public good. One can contend many Chinese agree with this proposition. However, they do so for a more pragmatic reason. Rather than reflecting on the state of the nation, a citizen of the People's Republic is more likely to accept these restrictions on liberty because they are perceived as beneficial for individual economic well being. The ability to act in accordance with one's own political will is rationally exchanged for a right to pursue monetary advantage. Adam Smith would be proud--Thomas Jefferson would likely be appalled.

Now let's consider the pursuit of happiness. Political philosophers have engaged in seemingly endless debates over what Jefferson meant by the pursuit of happiness. Garry Wills--author of Inventing America and other seminal texts on our democracy--contends Jefferson understood "the pursuit of happiness [as] a phenomenon both obvious and paradoxical. It supplies us with the ground of human right and the goal of human virtue. It is the basic drive of the self, and the only means given for transcending the self." Capitalists that we are, modern Americans have a less enlightened understanding of this concept. For the average American--and their elected representative in Washington--the pursuit of happiness is embodied in the right to acquire material wealth. Forget transcending the self, we are hell-bent on earning more than the Jones.

And for the Chinese? Hu Jintao and his fellow travelers cut right to the chase. In his report to the 17th National Congress on 15 October 2007, Hu declared "building a moderately prosperous society in all aspects is a fundamental goal for the Party and the state." The key elements of this "moderately prosperous society" are a quadrupling of per-captia gross domestic product, an improved legal system, and the achievement of sustainable development...all by 2020. Quite simply, Beijing understands the pursuit of happiness in a manner quite similar to that found in Washington. The pursuit of happiness is no more--or less--than an ability to aquire wealth in the global marketplace.

Well. At this stage in the conversation, Beijing and Washington appear to be operating under very similar fundamental principals. I would caution, however, against making too much of these philosophical similarities. While Chinese and American government may have come to a common understanding on what actually constitutes happiness, there are marked differences in how each nation should go about realizing that happiness.

Consider, for example, how Washington and Beijing understand the global commons. The global commons are the high seas, air, space and cyberspace. American politicians--of all stripes--have long argued the global commons need to be made safe and available to all nations so as to foster free trade and the spread of democracy. Washington also unilaterally declared itself protector of the global commons and set about enacting policies that served our purposes...but were not always welcome or desired elsewhere.

A case in point, freedom of navigation. Washington argues freedom of navigation is critical for commerce and should be maintained and exercised to the extent of our capabilities. This means the U.S. Navy takes full advantage of the "right of innocent passage" and we insist territorial waters extend no more than 12 miles off a state's coastline. Washington, by the way, believes the same is true of national air space. Once outside the 12 mile limit...well, to the mighty go the spoils...and the ability operate as we please.

The Chinese are not inclined to accept this argument. Rather than adhere to the 12 mile limit, Beijing has sought to limit innocent passage across the extent of her exclusive economic zone. This means the Chinese Communist Party takes umbrage with U.S. naval operations that occur within 200 miles of her shoreline. The Chinese leadership has expressed similar discomfort with U.S. military air operations over Beijing's exclusive economic zone. Imagine that, a sovereign state who objects to apparent U.S. surveillance operations and seeks to counter same in a defense of the nation.

A similar problem is now emerging on the cyber front. I quote from Secretary of State Clinton's speech delivered 21 January 2010, "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." Needless to say, Beijing does not have equivalent thoughts on the subject. China maintains a firewall that is intended to screen out incendiary material that might serve to threaten the existing regime. Business transactions go through this firewall with little difficulty. Pornography and tracts on Tibetan independence do not.

Sadly, Washington is unwilling or unable to understand these differences of opinion concerning the global commons and thus causes the Sino-U.S. relationship to suffer endless friction. (The same, of course, could be said of our current focus on the Chinese yuan.) American policy makers are seemingly intent on dismissing contending philosophies, and ignore the fact other nation's perceive our domination of the global commons conversation as a means of abetting continued U.S. military supremacy. Beijing is increasingly willing to test that mode of operation.

Is there a solution to this problem? I would humbly suggest there is wisdom in the words of Garrett Hardin's 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons." In his philosophical wrestling with mankind's growing population, Garrett observes, "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all." In our current Westphalian system a similar statement can be made about nations. While Americans contend our nation should be granted the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness we believe rational man is entitled, China's leadership is not so certain this is a wise course of action. Beijing seems to be arguing unfettered access to the global commons by potentially irrational actors breeds fear, suspicion and conflict.

Somewhere between these two extremes there resides an answer. But neither Washington nor Beijing will arrive at this conclusion without an understanding of their fundamental philosophical differences. As I said at the outset, the resolution of a seemingly intractable problem only comes with identification of the primary causes.