Peaceful war drives Sino-US relations

Patrick Mendis says China and the US - despite differences in language and culture - strive for the same "Pacific Dream" based on a special relationship bound by trade and commerce

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 3:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 3:25am

China and America are seemingly polar opposite. As one of oldest and still evolving civilisations, the Confucian union in China is a result of history. The United States was created by a group of enlightened founding visionaries of the late 18th century led by George Washington. Yet, both nations have had experience with European colonialism and engaged in wars with the British. The American Revolution led to the expulsion of Red Coats from colonial America while China had to endure two opium wars with the British.

What's remarkable is that the common language, ethnic bonding, and shared religious influence did not prevent the US declaring war in 1812 against the British Empire. During this time and for more than a century until the first opium war, trade relations flourished between the oldest civilisation and the newest nation on earth.

Similar to the 13 original American colonies that were bound by trade, China and America enjoyed commercial and friendly relations during the trade-for-peace era. The Sino-American experience suggests that trade - not language, ethnicity and religion - binds nations together.

In fact, China and America enjoy a "special relationship" - one that existed long before Winston Churchill claimed to have one between the US and the UK - because Beijing and Washington have never directly declared war on each other.

Throughout China's past, the humiliating European colonialism - including the agonising Japanese atrocities - and internal tribal warfare produced a unique national consciousness in modern China; the unfolding history thus created the Chinese republic led by Mao Zedong . The US, like the People's Republic of China, is a republic, not a democracy, as the founding fathers of America envisioned.

Trade has the supreme power to overcome all differences among people

It is true that the promotion of democracy was embedded in the principles of the founding republic as Thomas Jefferson wanted to transform the new nation into an idealistic Empire of Liberty. At the creation of the League of Nations after the first world war, president Woodrow Wilson famously declared that "the world must be made safe for democracy", a necessary claim to justify his decision to end imperialism.

In the preceding years of the second world war and until Dr Martin Luther King Jnr's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, the US struggled with democracy, freedom, and equal rights issues with women, native Americans and African Americans.

The tensions are still visible as President Barack Obama has occasionally been accused by some deniers, especially Tea Party enthusiasts, of not being an American citizen. The recent US government shutdown is seemingly a result of another denial of democratic outcome; the Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare) that was passed by Congress and validated by the Supreme Court.

The "tea party" activism and the appearance of dysfunctional party politics are part of my adopted country's healthy signs of democracy, which I first experienced after coming to America on a scholarship after spending my formative years in socialist Sri Lanka.

In the land of immigrants, I served as an American diplomat and a military professor for the US Department of Defence in the Nato and Pacific commands, but I was equally influenced by socialism and learned about Mao's communist China and its utopian worldview and the Chinese dream of equality and Confucian stability.

China is an amalgamation of world cultures. The evolved fabrics of Confucian order and governance are part of the cultural heritage and DNA of China to create what President Xi Jinping calls the "Chinese dream". This is similar to the US experience of "order out of chaos" and its tumultuous journey for equality and unity in the "American dream".

The success of American democracy, however, depended largely on human virtues, whether they were Christian or Confucian in origin, in the American civilisation.

As Obama implements his Asia pivot and Trans-Pacific Partnership strategy, Xi also activates his new Silk Road plan from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, through Sri Lanka. Both strategies intersect with trade and commerce, which, along with military components, have a natural tendency to bind nations together.

If the two nations created unity in diversity in their own republics, then trade has the supreme power to overcome all differences among people whose common desire is the pursuit of happiness.

While these two renaissance men - Obama and Xi - seemingly reflected on the trade-for-peace era of Sino-American relations that destined them to bring people together, the two republics are primed for a realisation of the "Pacific dream". US Secretary of State John Kerry cleverly adopted this old-yet-new American vision of the "Pacific dream" to revive the past. This might be an unparalleled legacy of the two leaders in Beijing and Washington to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Unlike the cold war era, the emerging new type of "great power relationship" is a novel pathway towards "peaceful war". Contrasting with previous leaders, Obama and Xi have their earlier life experiences either as exchange students or visitors to Asia and America to appreciate the cultural differences and to praise the human affinity that is common to all of us.

America's first president George Washington once asked, "Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?" The idea of a virtuous society was often cross-referenced by the other founding visionaries because "only a virtuous people are capable of freedom", as Benjamin Franklin, the American apostle of Confucian virtues, observed in his efforts to adapt the knowledge and wisdom imparted by the oldest civilisation to the youngest.

The eastern pediment of the US Supreme Court building in Washington displays the trinity of ancient lawgivers - Moses, Confucius and Solon - to celebrate America's debt to China and other civilisations. As both China and America are beneficiaries of other cultures, the unfolding drama in Sino-American relations, if managed wisely, can lead to a "Pacific dream" that combines the best of Confucian virtues and democratic values through trade and commerce.

Patrick Mendis, a distinguished senior fellow and affiliate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University's School of Public Policy, is the author of Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and the American Destiny Create a Pacific New World Order