Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 17:45 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 17:45 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Chinese exceptionalism


Sam Roggeveen


1 February 2010 12:22

Ben Croxon, who recently wrote a sub-thesis comparing US and Chinese exceptionalism, writes:

I agree with both Graeme Dobell and Hugh White, but wanted to mention another phenomenon which also may be seen as a factor in why China behaves the way it does. As Hugh states, there are different ways of looking at Asia's 'status quo', but underlying the entire discussion is a factor which tends to obscure traditional definitions.

Exceptionalism drives China's approach to the world. China's approach to the region is 'whatever works as long as we get to the end goal, East Asian primacy, with the ruling party intact'. Of course it's more complicated than this, and success relies heavily on maintenance of the domestic social contract between the ruling elite and the people (prosperity in exchange for power), but the flexibility of action fostered by its exceptionalist tendencies tends to allow China to weave in and out of terms like 'revisionist' and 'status quo' quite easily.

Continuing with the aquatic theme of Graeme Dobell’s 'status quo-tidal power', the People's Republic and its cultural sphere (eventually including Taiwan, alas) will push for room and probe for weakness until an edifice so porous will be inundated by a more explicit and confident Chinese exceptionalism.

Chinese exceptionalism historically found strategic expression in its hierarchical tributary arrangement with its East Asian neighbours. Its cultural imperative causes China it to constantly seek change, manoeuvre, in order to return to its rightful position. From its embarrassing predicament in the 19th century, to its flirtation with the Republic, to Communism (which, except in name, has been a blip on the radar when Chinese identity and political history is accounted for), China's recent history has been an exploration of how to find the right vehicle.

In the end, it realised that to embark on its journey to the past, it simply had to discard its previous mindset of finding a Western solution to its ills, and to put faith in itself by harnessing its own cultural power, its predominantly Confucian view of the world and its innate entrepreneurial tendencies.

There is no doubt that US strategic primacy has created a stable East Asian environment but its hold on that peace has allowed not only China to test and recalibrate its approach to re-emergence, but Japan, South Korea and India to also navigate paths to influence in the region. The potential for US allies to continue to seek alternate security assurances via their own hedging will increasingly corrode the clarity and stability of the regional order.

There is always the hope that competition may give in to accommodation and even concert, but much has to transpire, and many national desires have to be sated before that can be contemplated.