China and the US have both been described as countries that consider themselves to be exceptional. China, so much so, that some analysts argue it sees itself as 'uniquely unique'. What this means in China is that most Chinese understand themselves to be part of a culture that no-one else can truly understand, let alone ever be a part of.
This sense of 'us versus them' is politically expedient, and serves to build and reinforce a powerful sense of national identity. Indeed, so strong is the adherence to an exceptionalist national identity in China that when I was doing my PhD research on Chinese foreign policy, I seriously considered using the methodological approaches offered by the anthropology of religion to analyse and interpret my findings.
Another country which has been the subject of examination through the anthropology of religion is of course the US, for similar reasons.
The sense of national identity in the US is just as powerful and unquestioned as in China. Both 'flag waving' as well as more banal forms of nationalism are ubiquitous. Just as in China, where there exists a powerful logic of Chinese-ness, including the narrative of victimisation and humiliation at the hands of Western powers, in the US the commitment to values like freedom and democracy as being central to how the world should work are apparently largely unquestioned and unwavering.
In my current trip to the US, I started to notice in myself what I presume is the same sense of moral certainty that many Americans feel. I am both by proclivity and training a relativist, and I was surprised to find myself feeling pride and moral confidence as I toured such venerable institutions as the Library of Congress.
Over the course of a number of meetings with US think tanks, government employees and academics, I began to see an acceptance of a certain fundamental bottom line of truth as being the base of many US views about China and its activities in the Asia Pacific. Namely, that China is 'behaving badly' and it is up to the US to stop it. This can be seen in, for example, the recent Washington Post article in which the author casually assumes 'America's job of containing China'.
In Australia, increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea raises questions about what we want as well as how we should go about trying to achieve it. Among many influential China thinkers in the US, it seems to me, the question of 'how' to deal with China largely subsumes the questions of 'what' or 'why'. It is taken for granted that the US is, and should naturally continue to be, the predominant power in the region, simply because it is, unquestionably, better for everyone that way.
China's activities in the region, generally accepted as being 'bad behaviour', bump up against not only US interests such as trade and political influence but also against America's sense of self.
Australia, on the other hand, is concerned less by anxiety about its national identity and what it considers to be its rightful and appropriate role in the world. It is more concerned about practical exigencies. Australians welcome China as an economic partner, but fear China's geopolitical intentions, particularly regarding possible changes to existing norms and institutions. As the 2014 Lowy poll clearly showed, Australians see China as being equal with Japan as our 'best friend in Asia'; yet at the same time, Australians fear that China could pose a direct military threat to Australia in 20 years.
I am not arguing that Western liberal values are not worthy, and I am not proposing that Chinese behaviour has only the purest and most benevolent of intentions. The point is that we don't actually know what China is trying to achieve.
I would argue though that at this moment, precisely as China is rapidly increasing its activities and expanding its presence in the region, it would be wise for the US not to respond hastily or in ways that fail to reflect an awareness of both their own views and biases, as well as China's. It would also be valuable for the US to reflect that not everyone, even old allies like Australia, let alone actors like Indonesia, view the region or feel the same concerns about it as they do.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user ehpien.