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Getting the Language Right Helps Address Differences

Mar 06, 2011

Language plays an important role in international relations. Its function is not only for communication, but also for expressing the nuances of policy and strategic positions, whether they be favorable or not. A remarkably successful outcome, among others, of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the United States is that both parties are seeking, and increasingly sharing, common language in addressing their important and complicated relationship in the 21st century while not avoiding expressing their fundamental differences.

Quite separate from the grandiose official arrival ceremony, the lavish state dinner, and the summits, the historic visit has produced a series of significant  political speeches, talks and textual statements which frame a revitalised discourse for the 21st century China-US relationship. Taking the China-US Joint Statement as an example, this official document signed by both as a partial result of the visit has attempted not only to (re)frame the vision of the China-US relationship but also widely outlined  its development in important ways.

First, it re-establishes the foundations of the relationship for the 21st century and sets it firmly on the right tracks. China-US relations have often confronted, especially in the past year, unpleasant strong differences, entanglements and dilemmas in political, trade and security aspects, making the relationship look fragile and indecisive. The China-US Joint Statement attempts to correct  the direction of  the ship for the 21st century, reaffirming the three communiqués as the political basis for the relationship and adhering to its  strengthening in the years ahead. It implies that both countries realize that maintaining a good relationship is beneficial to each of them, accepting that to do otherwise is mutually harmful.

Second, it reframes the direction of the relationship for the 21st century by defining each nation’s identity in world politics. The relationship has often been constrained by how the two countries perceive each other’s identity which in turn has affected their perspective of and behavior toward each other. The Joint Statement touches upon this identity politics problem. In it, both signatories redefine and accept discursively each other’s identity, by stating that the United States “welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs”, while China “welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region”. The implication is that the United States wants to see China rising in peaceful ways, while China does not intend to challenge US aims  to play a constructive role in the region.

Moreover, international relations are also about designing language policy to achieve strategic goals. Collective plans and actions are derived from consensus or shared ideas which are expressed in shared language. It is apparent that these two major powers in world politics are increasingly learning to use the same, or similar, language in addressing global challenges and opportunities as well as in framing their bilateral relationship for the future. This is evident from a wide range of discursive actions during Chinese President Hu’s historic visit. Three interrelated key words are outstanding and most frequently used and shared by the two sides.

The first key word is cooperation. China and the United States reaffirm their commitment to building a positive, cooperative and comprehensive bilateral relationship for the 21st century; and work together to construct a “cooperative partnership” which is based on mutual respect and mutual benefit. The greater cooperation of the two countries, besides conventional fields and issues, extends to the establishment of a Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security, and cooperation on climate change, clean energy and environment as well as on science and technology. As Deng Xiaoping correctly predicted when visiting the US more than thirty years ago, China and the US would have tremendous opportunities to cooperate together. The two countries are now sharing “the spirit of cooperation” and believing that it  will continue to bring about substantial benefits for each in the next thirty years.

The second key word is dialogue. One major feature of democratization in international relations is to resolve disputes in civil ways, such as dialogic means, rather than by using, or threatening to use, violent force. In the China-US Joint Statement, the two countries share the idea of a need for enhanced and substantive dialogue and communication on all issues, including trade/economy, security/military and human rights, to foster greater understanding and expand mutual interests while reducing “misunderstanding, misperception and miscalculation”. The initiation of a sub-national China-US Governors Forum is another effort the two countries will make to ensure talks occur at more levels besides government-to-government and people-to-people exchanges.

The final key word is trust. How to enhance mutual trust in a strategic sense between China and the United States has been and will continue to be a major task in China-US relations. Given differences in historical and cultural aspects, social systems and disparate levels of national development, divergences and sensitive issues continue to exist. Yet both sides are willing to improve their mutual trust strategically, believing that disputes and problems should be resolved by dialogue and cooperation. This in turn should improve their trust and mutual understanding. With increasing common interest and economic interdependence, a sound and healthy China-US relationship has increasingly strategic significance and global effect.

That said, both countries continue to have differences and disagreements. The issue of human rights, for example, has been regarded as a difficult and sensitive one in China-US relations. The two countries treat the human rights issue as a high priority  in their respective public policies, but have divergent views and values on it. Although acknowledging the existence of all peoples “universal rights” and “specific rights”, the two sides do not agree on what rights are more essential to human beings. The American government rhetoric places more emphasis on the “universality” of human rights while China stresses the need of living and survival as basic aspects of human rights. It is positive that both governments have agreed on giving emphasis to the improvement of human rights conditions and to dealing with their  differences through constant dialogue.

China-US relations can be politically, socially, and linguistically constructed. The Chinese President’s historic visit has helped reframe and reshape lexically and textually the relationship for the 21st century. Importantly, these discursive practices themselves constitute integral parts of China-US relations as they unfold in the 21st century. Designing a constructive and benign language policy is important in the sense that it may facilitate a sound and healthy continuing relationship. What is equally important is to translate the talk and text into reality.

Liu Yongtao is Assistant Professor of Center for American Studies, Fudan University

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