Media Global Economy 2023.05.18
The longer-term challenge of easing US-China tensions
The article was originally posted on JBpress on April 18, 2023
The confrontation between the United States and China continues to be a serious problem.
Washington, D.C. officials view the rivalry between China and Western powers in the context of an ideological conflict between autocracy or authoritarianism and democracy. They subjectively consider China an evil presence.
Cool-headed experts and specialists who criticize such ideology-oriented or emotion-driven arguments are labeled pro-Chinese and subjected to condemnation.
Washington does not listen to EU powers that criticize its hardline stance toward China – which is represented by the attitudes of these US officials – as being too naive.
Not a few experts in the US liken the suppression of a calm and impartial discussion about China in Washington, D.C. to a resurgence of McCarthyism, which took the US by storm immediately after the end of World War II.
Such experts observe that the current state of Washington, D.C. in which extreme anti-Chinese sentiment dominates, is like the one when the US started a war on Iraq.
Back then, the US government claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and went to war with the country without verifying its claim.
After winning the war, however, the US could not find any WMD in Iraq. This significantly undermined international trust in the US.
Now, many people in the US have misgivings about the Chinese government. They allege that Beijing is conducting a planned balloon-based reconnaissance of US bases, providing arms to Russia, and planning to unify Taiwan by force by 2027.
None of these allegations is not supported by clear evidence. Yet such condemnation of China is supported in Washington, D.C. as if these allegations were proven facts.
Level-headed experts and specialists in the US do not hide their concern that once Washington, D.C. falls into such a state of affairs, it tends to go out of control.
For its part, Beijing is demonstrating amicable relations with Russia, Iran, and some African countries in defiance to the Western camp.
While Western countries denounce Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government faults Washington for sticking to the Cold War mentality, inviting a backlash from the US and European countries.
A stronger backlash came from Western countries when President Xi Jinping on March 20 visited only Russian President Vladimir Putin and stressed close bilateral ties, although Beijing had floated a peace proposal for the Russia-Ukraine war.
In short, the US and China continue to blame each other while sticking to their own ideologies, thereby giving rise to emotional antagonism between the two countries.
Under these circumstances, it seems extremely difficult for Washington and Beijing to improve bilateral relations by themselves.
In view of such bilateral relations between the US and China, the American and European experts and specialists with whom I regularly exchange opinions are unanimous in their view that there will be no effective way to fundamentally improve US-China ties for the time being.
The only near-term option is to secure minimum dialogue channels between the US and China to cope with possible contingencies as agreed on at the US-China summit meeting in November 2022.
This option is just a stop-gap measure, however. It will not radically improve US-China relations.
Thus, the only longer-term option is to explore ways to fundamentally improve ties while focusing on risk aversion in the near term.
The current US-China rivalry stems from emotional antagonism resulting from both countries sticking to their own ideologies.
As long as this state of affairs continues, any attempt at forming order based on rules and the rule of law is bound to fail. The very effort to make rules that can be agreed on between the US and China will be criticized as weak-kneed diplomacy in both countries.
For this reason, government-led rule formation will not solve the problem.
The only option left is to explore ways to prevent the crisis beyond the framework of rules. This option can be achieved by two approaches.
The first approach is to make a political commitment by the US and Chinese leaders, i.e., President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping to work together for better bilateral ties by maintaining dialogue channels between them.
The second approach is for cool-headed experts and specialists in both countries to collaborate beyond national borders as non-state actors in order to explore ways to improve ties and persistently put them forward to their governments.
When a state or organization faces a critical situation, bold actions by people with a strong sense of responsibility can turn the tide. Such unusual actions are needed to improve current US-China relations.
These actions can be taken by the leaders of the US and China in the first approach and by experts and specialists in the two countries in the second approach.
In the past, the first approach was taken to put an end to wars, prevent armed conflicts, and normalize diplomatic relations.
The second approach was taken to reduce international financial risks, improve international accounting standards, and shape international standards on food safety.
Amid growing globalization, organizations of non-state actors have a greater mutual influence beyond governments. This clearly suggests that non-state actors should play a more important role in a wider range of sectors.
It is no easy task for the leaders of the two countries to compromise and lead the current bilateral hostility to rapprochement. This holds true for the leaders of non-state actors as well.
Nevertheless, there is no way but to take bold actions to that end even though they go against the public sentiment in both countries and invite an angry backlash from the public. This is where Eastern thought gives us spiritual support.
While Western thought focuses on observable objective facts, human behaviors and institutions contributing to the development of natural and social sciences, Eastern thought values looking deeply into the interior mind – which is unobservable – and trying to live a life with a clear conscience.
Eastern thought uses the word sei (性; human nature) to express the way people should be.
The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸), one of the representative classics of Confucianism, states, “What Heaven (天) has conferred is called the Nature (性 human nature).” This nature refers to the way people should be as ordered by Heaven, a sublime existence.
Eastern thought believes that Heaven resides in the mind of each person.
According to Zenkai Ichiran Kowa written by Shaku Soen (in Lecture 39 on jinshin [尽心; exhausting one's mind]), Heaven as described in the Doctrine of the Mean is referred to as hotoke (仏; Buddha), michi (道; Tao), meitoku (明徳; virtue), bodai (菩提; bodhi), and shisei (至誠; utmost devotion) among other expressions in other classics of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and its essence is intrinsic conscience, that is, sincerity.
In our daily lives, our minds are swayed by events that occur in our work, schoolwork, social interaction and other situations.
Such distractions represent the workings of the superficial mind. The essence of the mind is the unchangeable nature (性), or sincerity, which is something we tend to be oblivious to or unaware of in our daily lives.
According to Engakuji Temple Zen Mater Nanrei Yokota, chief abbot of the Engakuji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, if you take a fresh look at the workings of your superficial mind from a broader perspective and bring your attention to your sincerity, your mind will not be swayed by everyday events. In his book Jugyuzu ni Manabu: Shin no Jiko wo Tazunete (In search of true self: Learning from the Ten Bulls of Zen), Reverend Nanrei Yokota writes, “If you develop the capacity to return to your intrinsic mind, your mind will cease to be swayed.”
In this book, Reverend Nanrei Yokota shares his experience in France. He was invited to a major event there that introduced Japanese culture, giving a lecture to an audience of some 500 people, followed by a hands-on zazen (seated Zen meditation) session that lasted ten minutes. Touching on why his session was highly appreciated by the audience, Yokota writes the following:
“I believe the organizers of this public event knew that Zen has the potential to get rid of strife.”
“This must be why they went out of their way to let me share a zazen practice with the audience. This experience gave us great joy.”
As his experience suggests, Eastern thought values the awareness of conscience, sincerity, the Nature (性) – or whatever you call it – that resides in the interior mind. It focuses on calming down the superficial mind, which tends be swayed in daily life. Meditation and zazen are effective in easing the hostile mind.
The political leaders of the US and China and the leaders of non-state actors in these two countries should become aware of their intrinsic sincerity and share efforts to rein in tensions stemming from the workings of the superficial mind, which is easily swayed by ideology and emotions. This must consolidate the bonds of mutual cooperation beyond nations.
Japan has long had in place political, economic, and social institutions that build on Western social thought. At the same time, the traditional spirit of Eastern thought as represented by Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, and Shinto continues to support the social morality of the Japanese.
In the 2022 Soccer World Cup, Japanese supporters cleaned the stands around their seats after their matches regardless of whether they won or not, receiving international praise.
This Japanese-style, well-mannered action demonstrated their gratitude to the organizers while controlling their minds that tend to be swayed by the outcome of their matches.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, in January 2020, the world denounced Beijing, accusing it of having concealed the pandemic and discontinued assistance to the country. Japanese people, however, voluntarily offered masks and donations to support Wuhan citizens.
This compassionate action by the Japanese public was highly praised by experts at US-based think tanks.
Such citizen-level international interactions that are voluntary and based on morality can lead the world to reconciliation beyond the rule-based framework of nations.
The courage required of the political leaders of the US and China and leaders of non-state actors there toward a bilateral reconciliation should be drawn from conscience, sincerity, and the Nature (性), which constitute the foundations of Eastern thought.
The Japanese government and people can help the US and China to improve bilateral ties over the longer term. This can be done by working with their true friends in the two countries and redoubling efforts to become more aware of intrinsic sincerity, rain or shine.
Focusing solely on supporting the US to win short-term praise from it and highlighting the ideological conflict with China to fuel US-China rivalry goes against the essence of Eastern thought, which constitutes the basis of the conscience of the Japanese.
Japanese virtue lies in the spirit of valuing consideration for others, hospitality, and morality.
Japan should be keenly aware of this fact and make relentless efforts to take on the challenge of persuading the US and China to reconcile. This is the historical mission of Japan, which is geographically situated between the two countries and thus destined to maintain close relations with both of them.