Sino-U.S. Relations - From a Cultural Perspective

Connie Yap Ai Thong, Vice Secretary (2020/21)


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The role of cultural differences

Often, in the history of China–US exchanges, keeping a distance has led to affinity; coming too close sometimes brings disappointment. The difference between China and the U.S. has created a special relationship on the one hand, but also a series of conflict and misunderstanding on the other.

These differences are multi-faceted and include history, culture, religious traditions, ethnic make-up, population, geography and regional environment, as well as social, political and economic systems, their levels of development, and other dimensions.  This article would explore 4 significant aspects.

Social System (including political and economic systems)

Political and social systems of China and U.S. are radically different. China's social system has been under constant changes since the twentieth century. Contrasting it with a more stable social system by the U.S., China’s socialist system is still immature and undergoing consistent changes. Changes in leadership and the evolution of the social system pose another challenge to the relationship of China and U.S. The superficial understanding of each other’s operating mechanisms causes tension and a challenge to resolve some disputes easily throughout the years.

Social Values

In light of social values, China acknowledges the importance of subsistence and consistent development, having suffered from many atrocities in the past such as poverty, wars and natural disasters. They prefer to stand as a collective entity and place enormous trust and respect in public power. On the other hand, the Americans are very strong on preserving individual freedom and rights and hence values the right to vote and freedom of expression. The divergence of social values by both countries can be observed and, in some way, influences their bilateral ties. However, modernization and social changes of China have gradually eliminated these differences.

Regional Environment

Despite the similar territory size of both countries, they bear a distinct national strategic security environment from each other and deal with foreign relations differently. Surrounded by many neighbours from all directions, China embraces a complicated regional environment. Hence, throughout history, China had subsequently dealt more on its relations with neighbouring countries and little time to delve wider into the international world. It took China some time to break through its self-isolation until 1990 to establish diplomatic ties with majority of the countries. Today, China still faces conflicts on territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests with its adjacent countries, particularly in the South China Sea. On the contrary, the U.S.’s geographic environment is fairly straightforward. Its exclusive geopolitical conditions offer a security barrier and facilitate overseas expansion in a way which differs from past colonial powers. For national strategic security, the status of China-U.S. relations impacts both countries but geographical conditions inflict a more direct impact on China. Also, it should be noted that the security framework in the Asia-Pacific region still relies largely on the U.S., and substantially excludes China.

Evolution of International Status

China has undergone various stages in its status quos, from strong national dominance to a downfall, and a resurgence in gaining global influence. The PRC’s achievement in independence, reform and initiating Western ties instils pride and patriotism in the Chinese nationals. For America’s international status, it continued to rise and at last became the leading power after World War II. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Cold War ending has resulted in the U.S. emerging as the new dominating superpower. However, we now witness a challenge for the U.S. in maintaining its international status.

To sum up, the cultural differences between China and the U.S. attributes to irreconcilable perceptions of their bilateral relations.