Earlier in the month, I read a very astute letter from a reader in the Wall Street Journal (hat-tip: Art Hutchinson) that captures the essence of how China feels about the US and world affairs in general. In it, the author suggests that in regards to the economic recovery, "China would like to see the U.S. economy recover, but not too much -- just enough to allow repayment of its enormous debt to China without making the dollar worthless. A weakened U.S. economy is good for China's long-term superpower aspirations. Global influence follows economic power." And regarding the concept of security and foreign affairs, "China's march to superpower status is facilitated by U.S. distractions abroad. If any rogue regime threatens to attack China, it knows we will annihilate it with no angst about proportionate response or world opinion." This last line is telling.
Having spent a lot of time involved in global transactions over the years -- not to mention a fair amount of time on the ground in China -- I can attest to the fact that most Chinese could really give two figs about how people perceive their actions if such activities do not damage potential commercial or personal relationships. This is a fundamental difference between applied Western commercial and political philosophy and that of China. Moreover, the Chinese feel this way about their own people as well -- they discriminate (or do not discriminate) equally when it comes to refusing to care about what others think. China moves by its own rules set. If that involves mercantilism (as it does in Africa at the moment) or producing the cheapest possible product for Western countries with dangerous parts/ingredients, China really does not care. That is, unless such actions ultimately reflect negatively on them when it comes to their bank balance.
Not that there's anything wrong with this if you take their perspective, especially if you realize where the Chinese are coming from historically and where they want to be tomorrow. As a friend wrote to me the other day, attempting to explain current Chinese policy, he suggested it was important to "remember that Sun Tzu was Chinese". Indeed he was.