Need to reimagine strategic narratives about China?
tThe East Asia Forum published on 1 December 2019 a new article on its website „Need to reimagine strategic narratives about China“ by Jacob Taylor:
„Reality is that the human mind is more storyteller than factual analyst. It filters information to support narratives about the world and is less attuned to evidence than to the persuasiveness of characters who deliver it. These facts justify the view in international strategic thinking that objective and quantifiable interests should take precedence over subjective values and narratives in international affairs and saw institutionalised diplomacy entrenched to ensure that rational calculations dominated outcomes.
Research in neuroscience and psychology demonstrates, however, that narratives are not so easily abandoned when thinking strategically. Narratives are physically embodied in patterns of neuronal, emotional and psychological activity. Attempting to confine international strategic thinking to security and economic interests is unlikely to stop subjective narratives from overthrowing strategic thinking.
The US-led strategy of engagement with China is supposed to have been sustained in Washington by a narrative that Beijing’s entry into international markets would drive democratic political reform. In the same vein, Washington’s current view of China as a strategic competitor is underpinned by a narrative that China’s rise threatens America’s place at the top of the global order.
The ‘China as threat’ narrative interprets the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) pervasive yet opaque influence in China as evidence of a coordinated system of control that threatens US interests. A significant element in the policy community in Australia apparently buys the same story. Each explicit strategic appraisal of China is both constrained and propelled by an implicit mythology about itself (‘the United States as liberal champion’) or the other (‘China as nefarious threat’).
The narratives that underwrite US-led economic and security appraisals of China define the international arena as a contest between monolithic national actors. The only imaginable outcome of such a binary game is one nation prevailing over the other through coercion or control.
Neglecting the function of narrative in policy development in a security–economic nexus of interests deprives international strategic thinking of vital information required to envisage more sophisticated scenarios for shared security and prosperity.
(…) Understanding the role of narratives in shaping international strategic thinking is thus essential to dealing with the issue of how to change international institutions in ways that promote continuing economic and political interaction and reduce the chance of conflict.
Adam Breuer and Alastair Johnston drew on the analysis of cultural evolution to trace the development of the ‘China as a revisionist power’ narrative in the US foreign policy community and throughout the English-language digital media. They show that simple, categorical and zero-sum sub-narratives such as ‘China is a threat to the liberal order’ and memes such as ‘China challenges the rules-based order’ crowd out nuanced but less emotionally crowded strategic assessments of the China–US relationship.
Analysing a specific policy in terms of the genealogy of the story that drives it helps to expose how emotional and subjective factors — and not just explicit economic or security interests — shape international strategic thinking. Ultimately, this informs thinking about the types of collective narratives needed to underwrite shared security and prosperity within national and international institutions of governance.
‘The United States’ playing chess while China’s playing Go’ is a common adage to explain why both appear prone to misapprehending each other’s motivations and actions. For policymakers today the problem is that existing frameworks for international strategic thinking do not offer space to imagine games with better outcomes for China, the United States and the rest of the world, or to consider whether these nations should be playing games at all.
Jacob Taylor is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Asian Bureau of Economic Research at the ANU and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.
The East Asian Forum is a prochinese website that should be treated with caution. However, I would like to focus on one central point. Kissinger describes Chinese strategic thinking more with Go, that is, with the slow, gradual, more evolutionary encircling of the opponent, which then incapacitates him, while Western strategic thinking is more akin to chess, where one beats a lot, plays more aggressively , has a winner takes it all attitude and the goal is final victory and submission. Assuming one shares this somewhat simplistic assumption, the question remains whether this difference is not exactly inviting misperceptions and does not make things even more dangerous. But what is the consequence? Should the West now become a Go player or China a chess player, so that the mutual perception, strategies, and expected moves are synchronized and coordinated to avoid a conflict? The article even questions the simple Go / Chess binarity. It claims that the simple zero game thinking and political and economic categories are not sufficient and that the West should reimagine his narratives and assumptions, maybe include cultural categories. However, it doesn´t propose new concrete categories except for the cultural dimension but remains very vague on this aspect, calls that the West should change its narratives so that the West should see the rise of China not as a threat, but more as an opportunity and god-given development. And even if you add cultural or civilizational categories the China threat theory still exists as Dr. Kiron Skinner, chief of the US Secretary of State Pompeo´s think tank Policy Planing Staff speaks of the Cold war as a fight between two Western civilizations and of the Sino-American conflict about a struggle between Western and non-Western civilizations, similar to Samuel Huntington´s Clash of Civilizations instead of a dialogue of civilizations.
The article stays with the vague appeal that China should not be seen as a threat, be it political, economic or geopolitical terms and categories and that these categories and narratives wouldn’t be sufficient to understand the whole picture and development. However, it doesn´t criticize China for its own narratives and sometimes propaganda lies, not even quotes Brzezinski or Kissinger or John Milligan-Whyte and Thomas Barnett who wanted close Sino-American cooperation or even a G 2. Milligan- Whyte even proposed that the USA should Deng Xiaopingsinize its political system and foreign policy to adept Chinese wishes. This in itself is some sort of call for regime change. And the article only addresses Western failures, but not Chinese „wrongdoing“. It also doesn´t address the question if China and the USA don´t perceive themselves as exceptionalist powers or are revisionist powers and if Chinese thinking at this point is very similar to American exceptionalism, even if the Chinese hide it better in their propaganda of antihegemony, diversity and win-win.