The west needs a language reboot to put its relations with China on to an even keel
© Jonathan McHugh Charles Parton 13 HOURS AGO 1
Please, when it comes to the west’s relations with China, can we stop talking about the Thucydides Trap, the Golden Era, Belt and Road and “a shared future for mankind”? Such terms are dangerous. At a time when President Donald Trump is taking a chainsaw to the truth, it might seem pedantic to argue for a little linguistic pollarding aimed at maintaining healthy growth in international relations. It is not: language really matters. So, occasionally, does punctuation. When the UK was negotiating with China over the future of Hong Kong, the deliberate insertion by the Chinese side of a comma in an English text changed the meaning so much that it required a further two days to get rid of it. beyondbrics Emerging markets guest forum beyondbrics is a forum on emerging markets for contributors from the worlds of business, finance, politics, academia and the third sector.
It is not just that some language is bad history. Google the ‘Thucydides Trap’ and you get 73,000 hits. Conferences are held on it. The phrase is supposed to suggest that conflict is inevitable between a rising power (Athens/China) and an established one (Sparta/the US). But Graham Allison, the Harvard professor who invented the phrase, is no classical scholar. He seems unaware that many scholars consider the one sentence upon which the idea is based to be a late insertion by Thucydides, and one not raised in the rest of his history of the Peloponnesian War. Rather, Thucydides makes clear that Athens had already risen, had the biggest navy long before war broke out, and had been quarrelling with Sparta for nearly 50 years. There is also an historical sleight of hand under way in China’s appropriation of the Silk Road to serve semantic duty for the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), a grandiose project championed by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to build finance and build infrastructure in more than 80 countries. In reality, however, few Chinese ever travelled either the land or the sea routes along the old Silk Road, leaving the transport of goods by land to the Sogdians and by sea to Arabs and others. Besides, the Silk Road is more important for the transfer of ideas, music, philosophy, religion; and their flow was west to east. But we cannot put all the blame on the Chinese. The Thucydides Trap and the Golden Era. the phrase used by Beijing and London to describe the current phase of UK-China ties. are at least partly our creations. The difference is that Chinese coinages are sometimes deliberately obfuscatory. Ask any scholar, Chinese or foreign, of the meaning of the ‘shared future of mankind’ — the umbrella description of Mr Xi’s foreign policy — and tell me if you come away any the wiser. Or if BRI is so clear, why has it spawned an industry of explainers? Wrong language matters for three reasons.
First, it may suggest that events are preordained or unavoidable. The Thucydides Trap represents a negative approach to international relations, suggesting that a fight between the US and China is inevitable.
It promotes confrontation rather than co-operation. Instead, we should accept that China is a rising power and we should look for ways to give it a reasonable and commensurate say in world affairs.
Second, it hinders us in seeing China’s aims clearly, and thereby in prescribing policy wisely. “Belt and Road” and “shared future of mankind” obscure the reality of ruthlessness behind China’s foreign policy. We should not blame them for this: all countries pursue their own interests and China is just very good at it. But we should blame ourselves for not seeing clearly.
The BRI is not a new Marshall Fund and its plan makes clear that it is not just about infrastructure. Some elements bring benefits, some come at our expense (for example, Chinese domination of new industries; standards for industry, environment, labour etc; changes to the application of international law; the promotion of authoritarian forms of governance, including of the internet). The danger of using BRI as shorthand is that we endorse wholesale projects and processes, some suitable, some not. Instead, let us talk of “globalisation with Chinese characteristics” or just “Chinese globalisation”, to remind ourselves of the need to pursue our own interests and find a balance with China. Otherwise the ‘shared future’ will be a shared Communist Party future.
Third, China uses language to put others psychologically on the back foot. Anyone who has negotiated with the Chinese, diplomats or businessmen, knows that there is a long history of signing up to seemingly innocuous and generalised language, which is later used to bring psychological pressure when negotiating specific clauses.
This is the danger of the “Golden Era”. When China dislikes an action, it accuses the UK of prejudicing the Golden Era. But if we talk of “equal, reciprocal, mature and balanced relations”, it becomes more difficult, if not absurd, to use such threats. The matter can then be argued on its merits, not on emotion. There is impeccable Chinese support for this insistence on the accurate use of language. Mr Xi is fond of quoting Confucius, if selectively. Here is a thought from the Analects which he does not cite: If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success . . . What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect. Instead, Mr Xi and the party’s central publicity (propaganda) department seem to prefer the approach that Humpty Dumpty adopts in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, . . . it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Which is why we in the west should be more Confucian and less Carrollian.
Charles Parton is Associate fellow of RUSI, trustee of the environmental NGO China Dialogue, and London Director of the Beijing-based research and analysis company China Policy