Misunderstanding, Cultural Differences at the Heart of U.S.-China Discord

January 26, 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman
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China and the United States are hindered in their efforts to build trust by cultural differences that exacerbate misunderstandings between the two nations. A panel of China experts at West 2012 in San Diego outlined several unintentionally contentious areas between the Pacific powers, but it did not have solutions for all of the challenges. Vice Adm. John M. Bird, USN, director of Navy Staff and former commander of the Seventh Fleet, said that China and many in Asia view the world differently than the United States does, especially when it comes to values. "We fall victim at our peril when we try to apply our mindset to them," he warned. "For example, our idea of deterrence is their idea of containment. We want to deter access denial; but they don't see it that way." That access denial may be exacerbated by China's lack of transparency, noted Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, USMC (Ret.), principal, WC Gregson & Associates, Inc., and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. "What is China's strategic direction?" he asked. "Are they trying to achieve sea control from the land? We are not used to being challenged that way. Our credibility to operate in what China considers its near seas is critical to our perceived deterrence." Vice Adm. Ann E. Rondeau, USN, president, National Defense University, pointed out that China is going through its own vertigo on how to interact with other nations as a world leader. One People's Liberation Army general referred to a "strategic trap" in which the China and the United States may soon find themselves. The admiral called for new scholarship about China, pointing out that the United States does not have the broad outline of China scholars the way it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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