China's snorting over plane reflects heritage

April 10, 2001|By Derek Mitchell

WASHINGTON -- At first glance, the issue seems clear: the United States says it adhered to international legal standards and practice when its surveillance plane and China's fighter jet collided while China claims the United States caused the accident and must apologize.

But the issue in the Chinese mind reflects a deeper clash of cultures that the West and China will have to manage in years to come.

Put simply, while the United States views the incident as a simple matter of law, the Chinese government and people view it as less a legal than a moral matter.

The roots of this perspective lie in China's traditional culture of Confucianism. Despite Communist attempts to throw it on the "ash heap of history," Confucianism has survived within the Chinese instinct and culture and remains China's compass for navigating internal and external relations.

Indeed, less a religion, Confucianism is more a practical guide for social relationships, whether between the individual and society, or among individuals themselves. Through proper understanding and management of these relationships, according to Confucianism, one may establish societal order and peaceful relations.

A core element of Confucianism is a concept the Chinese call "li," or propriety. In the West, one might define this as "proper conduct" between individuals. The rituals and conduct within this principle are intimately defined in Confucian texts. Although Confucianism does not define morality as a Western religion does, it nonetheless encapsulates a tacit morality that highlights respect and forbearance.

Thus, in the current circumstance, we receive an emotional reaction from the Chinese government and some of its people to the recent incident. Far from considering the issue as a matter of law, in Chinese eyes the activities of American surveillance planes were themselves fundamentally immoral acts that offend their sense of "proper conduct" between parties. To the Chinese eye, they are provocative and represent a lack of respect by the United States toward China, if not violations of precious Chinese sovereignty.

That is the root of China's demand for an apology -- not as a legal matter, but as an appropriate response to what the Chinese view as aggressive and disrespectful acts.

In his recent comments, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan betrayed this attitude when he berated the United States for "arrogance" and "repeated errors."

"Errors" is a strange word for diplomatic parlance, but traditional in the Chinese lexicon as a somewhat patronizing term reflecting a misguided action or attitude within the United States in its handling of the current affair. Hence the progress made when the U.S. government expressed "regret" over the loss of the Chinese pilot.

Clearly, this is not a simple matter of spying. China is spying on us as well. Indeed, China has a long history of espionage, deception, and covert operations. In the Chinese context, however, appearances matter.

In the current situation, the U.S. activities and the Chinese casualty were exposed publicly, changing the dynamics of the situation. Given that, according to China we must apologize for our inappropriate conduct and by definition are at fault. China also has lost face at home and is seeking to shore up its position of weak legitimacy within an increasingly nationalistic environment. For that, too, the United States, in Chinese minds, must account.

None of this means that the United States must sacrifice its interests to accommodate China or alter substantially its current approach. In fact, the Bush administration has displayed admirable restraint and flexibility in its conduct and rhetoric to stem the possibility of unnecessary escalation while remaining firm in its commitment to law and principle.

The international community should be encouraged by the administration's first test, particularly as many nations feared that its more wary rhetoric toward China suggested a recklessness and proclivity to create a new enemy.

The administration's conduct so far has suggested the reverse.

Meanwhile, China must find a way to balance its traditional nature with its desire to be a responsible member of the international community. In this community, law matters. If China wants to be a member of institutions like the World Trade Organization, notions of propriety must be subsumed by requirements of and commitments to law.

The current test of China's progress on this front is indeed found lacking.

Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow for Asia in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was the senior China director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2000 until January.

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