Abingdon, Oxon & New York, Routledge, 2015, xviii, 206 pp.
Review by Jean-Pierre Cabestan
This book is not just another analysis of Sino-American relations. It is rather an attempt to explain the difficulties in the relations between China and the United States by making trust, or rather the lack of it, the main or even the only cause of those difficulties. There are numerous studies on the importance of trust in international (and interstate) relations, and some of them may occasionally be pertinent, even though the writer of this review is inclined to think that interests carry far more weight than a quality that is rather more moral than political. Ronald Reagan’s remark comes to mind: “Trust but verify.” But the real fault of this work lies in its outrageously partisan character, and in the end, despite his wide coverage, Michael Tai has little to tell us about the present, and even less about the future, relations between Beijing and Washington, or between their respective societies.
Taking his inspiration from the social behaviourism of Alexander Wendt, Tai tells us in his introductory Chapter 1 that, in his view, the notion of trust consists of four key elements: history, interests, structures, and empathy. That may be so. But he offers us little explanation of how the state integrates these four conditions to transform them into policies. Then, in Chapter 2, he lays out how the Americans perceive themselves and how they perceive China, which he follows with a parallel consideration of China’s perceptions. The main idea that emerges from this is that the United States is far less well-disposed towards the People’s Republic than is the latter’s government and society towards that dominant global power. The basic causes for this are the Americans’ ideological, racial, and religious prejudices.
After this induction into the heart of the matter, the reader is invited to consider the opposition said to exist between the perspectives of Beijing and Washington in three areas: namely climate change, the global financial crisis, and international security.
With regard to the first of these, it quickly becomes clear that the writer sticks closely to the Chinese government’s official pronouncements to the effect that China has the right to pollute as much as Western governments have been allowed to since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. By contrast, his arguments in Chapter 4 are more difficult to follow when he stigmatises the Obama Administration’s “cold war” spirit and makes it the main culprit in the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference (p. 90). In any case, subsequent events have brought new factors to light that contradict some of the author’s views: in fact, the agreement reached in 2014 between the American president and his Chinese counterpart in Beijing throws considerable doubt on the approach adopted by the Chinese authorities five years earlier.
Michael Tai is more convincing in Chapter 4, when he deals with the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. This is probably the least uninteresting part of the book. In it he compares the Chinese and American views of the crisis. Despite his diatribes against the two lobbies identified as the “market fundamentalists” and the Washington Consensus, without any nuanced distinction between them, and despite his unmitigated praise of the PRC’s “non-ideological pragmatism,” he can do little but note their many points of agreement on the causes of the crisis, especially the excessive deregulation of the financial markets. Admittedly, among the American analysts he is able to pick out certain conservatives who exaggerate China’s role in the rapid development of the crisis. But on the whole, what his analysis reveals is the frustration common to many Chinese at their own credulity with regard to the banking know-how of their Nemesis (p. 123).
The third case study is without doubt the weakest. The US is said to be intrinsically hegemonic, while China is traditionally defensive, as the Great Wall bears witness. But Chapter 5 ends nonetheless with the following admonition: “The full significance of the changing hegemonies in modern times lies not just in the end of the ‘American century’ but in the close of five centuries of Western and Caucasian domination. It marks the conclusion of white supremacy” (p. 164). Does this suggest that a new hegemon, perhaps more “benevolent” but nonetheless powerful and possibly just as racist, is destined to replace the other one?
To conclude, Tai serves up a well-known dish from Beijing’s propaganda menu: we know you far better than you know us! (pp. 187-188). That explains the lack of mutual trust. Moving swiftly over the opacity of the Chinese political system and more slowly over the attractions of the American way of life, the writer concludes that the Chinese government ought to strengthen its soft power and tell its own “success story” better; in short, Sino-American misunderstandings boil down to a vast communication problem.
What do we learn from this book? As we have seen, very little that we did not know already. Yet it is useful, because it shows the continuing wide gap between Chinese and American perceptions of the relations between Beijing and Washington, and to a certain extent those of the West as a whole. Moreover, being obsessed by the US like many mainland Chinese, Tai makes scant reference to Europe in his reflections. He is content to throw light on the diversity of American opinions on China, but he tells us nothing about the debates or differences of opinion between the Chinese themselves. In short, Michael Tai’s book is quite representative of the rising power of China and its strengthening sense of destiny, presided over by Xi Jinping since 2012.
Translated by Jonathan Hall.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan is the head of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University (firstname.lastname@example.org).