As one of the world’s most influential social leaders, the call for an all-inclusive, peaceful society by Pope Francis has been well received among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To be an all-inclusive society is, however, to invite conflict. After all, differences become potential points of conflict when people interact. To thrive, an all-inclusive society, therefore, must confront potential flashpoints.
This is a particularly important lesson in our globalized world where countries as different as the US and China compete. The divergent governing philosophies of the United States and China, along with deeply entrenched cultural differences, guarantee the US and China will conflict, so it is how these inevitable conflicts are addressed that matters.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival at the White House on the heels of the Pope’s visit comes at a time when both the Chinese and American People feel economically insecure. The US has, of course, long felt threatened by growing Chinese influence and China has grown increasingly threatened by America’s renewed presence in Asia. Meanwhile, threats of conflict over territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea loom.
Beyond the niceties of American and Chinese leaders vocalizing respect for each and their nations, these two world powers face serious flashpoint that could easily escalate into conflict. Unfortunately, world leaders too often avoid, or barely mention, sensitive issues when face-to-face, even if they pledge to confront their counterparts for grievances in front of domestic audiences. When neglected, these sensitive issues tend to fest until they explore into damaging crises.
In terms of US and Chinese diplomatic relations, the fact that China is currently ruled by an authoritarian regime and America’s culturally identity is rooted in its embrace of democratic ideals guarantees a whole host of issues will arise between the two world powers. When the US and China pretend these realities do not create inherent conflict for the sake of keeping peace, they undermine US-Chinese relations over time by making it more likely disagreements with escalate.
Furthermore, the American and Chinese cultures are fairly alien to each other. In the past half-century or more, most of the world has assimilated traits from the American culture into their own, which has helped foster more stable relationships between the US and these countries. As a closed society, China has resisted the Americanization process. This means the US and China do not share common social bonds and interests that would help prevent conflicts from escalating.
Where Westerners tend to think in terms of a globalized and homogenized society, much of Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East belong to drastically different cultures. Views on civil liberties and human rights, for example, often conflict with the less liberal views of non-westerners. As such, policy conflicts inspired by cultural clashes, such those over religion, morals, ethics, and other values, cannot be ignored. They must be confronted.
With that in mind, the US and China have been able to maintain a stable and peaceful working relationship for decades. Although it has largely been economic in nature, it was built by focusing on policies that address common US and Chinese interests. In order to secure that relationship into the future, the US and China to need address the conflicts of interests that have long been neglected for the sake of peace as they are what drive current tensions.
In other words, the US needs to work toward common interests without betraying its own interests and vice versa. There is often a tendency for people to feel as though any disagreement in a relationship means the end of a relationship, but the ability to have disagreements and different views without sparking conflict is what makes a relationship healthy.
The US and China share common security interests, even though they pose security risks to each other. The more erratic and domineering North Korea becomes, the more of a threat the Kim Jong-Un regime is to China and US interests. Where the US is currently conflicting with Russia over the Ukraine Crisis, China has a long history of grievances with Russia, which includes Chinese claims to Russian territory. As such, these are areas where China and the US need to cooperate.
In addressing sensitive issues like cyber security, industrial espionage, and China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea, the aforementioned common security interests serve as a tether that forces can both nations to resolve their differences and serve as a basis for developing solutions.
Diplomacy is about a nation balancing its own interests with the interests of its partners. Because those interests shift with time, diplomatic ties need to be recalibrated when interests diverge. Only by engaging each other in a direct and honest manner when it comes to sensitive issues can potential solutions, which properly address the interests of partner nations and avoid the escalation of conflict, be developed.
To build an all-inclusive, peaceful society, inevitable conflicts must be confronted before they escalate into crises and resolved with solutions that balance everyone’s interests. Where this is true for the United States and China, it is true for all nations. It is difficult to avoid conflicts among Western nations with similar cultures, but the truth test is whether the West can maintain an all-inclusive society with alien cultures like those in China and the Middle East.
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