Politics and Environment

Why political disagreements difficult to resolve?

28 October 2014

K I Woo, Human Capital Alliance senior advisor discusses the China and US relationship

Professor Minxin Pei’s Foreign Affairs review of Nina Hachigan’s edited collection of essays shows why clashing perspectives and constant questioning of opponents’ underlying premises inhibit resolutions of many political disagreements.

In Debating China: The US China relationship in ten conversations, Hachigan pairs leading US and Chinese experts to debate specific bilateral issues.

China’s military modernization

The most revealing part of the book, Pei said is the conversation on China’s military modernization featuring two writers with irreconcilable differences.

Xu Hui, a professor with the rank of senior colonel at China’s National Defense University is pitted against Christopher Twomey, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Twomey questions why China needs to expand its military when its security environment has improved. He said China faces no threat of land invasion, and none of its neighbors comes close to matching Chinese power.

Xu argues that, by the same logic, the United States “should have given up on its military transformation a long time ago,” since the Americans enjoy complete military technological superiority and has no powerful neighbors to threaten them.

Human rights

In an interview on human rights, Chinese scholar Zhou Qi said China doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the West on human rights because the Confucian order is based on societal rites (prescribed code of ritual behavior) rather than fundamental human rights.

Consequently, it viewed enhancing harmony of the masses as more important than individual rights.

However, Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University professor, flatly rejected this claim, saying it implies Chinese exceptionalism exempts it from complying with universal norms. Nathan didn’t elaborate “how” his human rights view represented “universal norms”.

Seeing facts differently

In another example the debaters were divided by the way they viewed the facts.

On the Taiwan question, the Stimson Center’s Alan Romberg questions whether it was ever actually an integral part of China against Peking Unversity professor, Jia Qinqquo’s contrary view.

Some bilateral disputes amenable to compromise

Despite the large number of seemingly irresolvable bilateral disputes, Pei said some bilateral disputes seem more amenable to compromise.

Washington and Beijing, he said should be able to overcome climate change, and global responsibilities unrelated to security, since those issues were less poisoned by underlying distrust and each side has an interest in cooperation.

Bilateral disagreements will play larger role

Pei said that it was “also painfully clear that other, deeper disagreements will play a larger role in determining the nature of the bilateral relationship — and that these disputes will remain unresolved for the foreseeable future.”

The United States and China, he said should forget about trying to resolve their conflicts over China’s military modernization, East Asian security, Taiwan, and political values and should instead find a way to manage them.

Each side claims other lacks legitimacy

The Americans said China’s brash assertion of territorial claims, no-strings-attached assistance to resource-rich developing countries, and mercantilist trade policies undermine the liberal world order.

At the same time, the Chinese said that the criticism smacks of hypocrisy, because Western countries, including the United States, were guilty of the same vices during their ascendance.

“They also argue that China’s new assertiveness is perfectly appropriate for a great power. Moreover, they claim, the United States underwrites the global order not out of altruism but out of naked self-interest.”

US containment of China’s growth

Pei said Debating China shows the Chinese writers believe that the United States will never willingly cede its global hegemony and allow China to become a great power in its own right.

The Americans, he said respond to this sentiment with a mixture of incredulity and exasperation.

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