Globalist Analysis

China’s New Doctrine: Mental Power for Uncertain Times

How does the concept of “mental power” provide a useful prism through which to view U.S.-China affairs?


  • Regarding the United States, China needs to show wisdom and tolerance toward this spoiled boy, and it needs to wait for him to mature a bit.
  • The willingness and determination to dissolve disputes between two countries is exactly the mental power that is needed.
  • Both China and the United States hold characteristic mental attitudes on world affairs, derived from their unique cultural traditions.
  • Looking ahead, nobody will find easy access to arms when all peace-loving peoples of the world have weaved a web of international laws and institutions for the common good.
  • The key component of "mental power" is to make the willingness and determination to pursue an established foreign strategy a measure of power.

As the Greek philosopher Aristotle remarked in his work on Politics, a big state enjoys glory and majesty, while a small state enjoys freedom and dignity. Each and every nation — no matter what size — acts on the world stage under the shadow of her mental power.

She can be delighted or discontent, joyful or anxious, subject to a “mood” — depending whether the perceived halo of glory is adored or whether the basic claim to dignity is respected. And the “mood,” in reverse, affects how she interprets and responds to situations.

Mental power, in the context of Sino-U.S. relations, refers to the ability of both countries to show restraint on emotional impulses and maintain a relatively stable mind-set in getting along with each other.

The key component of “mental power” is to make the willingness and determination to pursue an established foreign strategy. By definition, it is a branch of “soft power,” reflecting the courage and confidence of a country in sticking to its chosen path when confronting obstacles on the road ahead.

Both China and the United States hold characteristic mental attitudes on world affairs, derived from their unique cultural traditions. At this juncture, instead of harnessing “smart power” and sending out mixed signals regarding each other's strategic intentions, what the two countries need most is to build strategic trust in a relatively stable and predictable manner.

Therefore, the willingness and determination to resolve disputes and to build trust between the two countries, rooted in a strong conviction in peace and cooperation on both sides, rather than any other transient sentiments, is exactly the mental power that is needed.

Some geopolitical analysts, such as professor Stephan Walt, Dominic Tierney and Michael Freedman, proceeding from empirical knowledge of the historical tragedy of Great Power politics, tend to feel the urge to be pessimistic. As a result, they interpret the path of Sino-U.S. relations as one destined for structural or ideological conflict between the two.

In contrast, I would suggest paying more attention to the healing effect of mental power in handling U.S.-Sino relations. If we followed that route, we would witness how the conviction in peace and belief in a strong and mature partnership can grow to be self-sustaining. This, in turn, helps to put things back on track — even after a slip astray.

In retrospect, the year 2010 unfolded in a series of mutual bickering. Tensions went especially high on issues such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the hosting of the Dalai Lama, allegations against China's cyberspace policy, the value of the renminbi and China's South China Sea claim.

And yet, as the end of the year approaches, the picture for 2011 seems a bit rosy. Both sides are engaged in preparing a warm atmosphere for the upcoming visit by President Hu Jintao to the United States. The intention is to keep tensions in check and avoid an escalation, which helps to heal the wounds toward each other accumulated so far.

A “pendulum effect,” is attributed to such recurring cycles of development in Sino-U.S. relations. However, even though the trajectory of warming up and cooling down in bilateral relations may seem to repeat itself, changes in the underlying theme are sneaking their way up, and the healing effect of mental power needs to be unleashed further.

In appreciating the mental power interaction in U.S.-Sino relations, it is important to look at the relationship through two prisms — the international prism and the soft-power prism.

Sino-U.S. relations are not restricted to a bilateral framework at all. In a broader sense, it represents a new pattern of correlation between the emerging powers (including China, India and Brazil) and the traditional western powers (such as the United States, Britain and Japan).

In handling bilateral relations, the two leaderships find no escape from international flashpoints. Regional conflicts are perpetuating. Traditional and non-traditional security threats remain intertwined.

The shadow of the financial crisis lingers on. And the gap between the Global North and the Global South continues to widen. No country can afford to act alone — and the sensible way out is to walk a cooperative path.

The soft-power prism underscores the fundamental difference as to where China is standing now vis-à-vis where the United States stood 200 years ago. In the early days of the 19th century, the United States closed the door of the whole American continent to outsiders under the banner of the "Monroe Doctrine." The American Century, too, was unveiled with the breakout of the Spanish-American War.

In the world of today, that historical sense of blind obsession with military power can no longer be justified. Pursuing instruments of war as a matter of state policy has for the most part been abandoned ever since the world collected itself from the ashes of two world wars.

Looking ahead, nobody will find easy access to arms when all peace-loving peoples of the world have weaved a web of international laws and institutions for the common good.

Essentially, soft power, including a firm belief in peace and development and the choice of wise diplomacy, far eclipses the strength of any type of coercive power.

The key to healing wounds with a strong sense of mental power and inner discipline is to examine oneself first, put oneself into the other's shoes, build mutual trust and bear in mind consistently a broader picture of world peace and prosperity.

For over 300 years, ever since the Westphalia system was established, it has been the privilege of several Anglo-Saxon white men — men like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt — to rewrite the world map with a quill pen. That has now become a thing of the past.

It is just natural that the United States might feel embarrassed, disappointed or offended when it no longer held the single most important and final say in international affairs. For that same reason it is understandable, too, that the United States would sometimes overreact to China.

Conversely, China, by trusting the United States’ ability to face the music and ultimately to pursue a desire for peace, needs to show wisdom and tolerance toward this spoiled boy who has so far hesitated to share its toys with neighbors, and it needs to wait for him to mature a bit.

In the same way, China — as a newcomer in the international system — is still on a learning curve. With its rise on the world stage comes a larger share of international responsibility. China in recent years has made its due contribution to regional security arrangements, the international fight against pirates and international humanitarian assistance, etc.

Out of inexperience with the increasingly heavy weight she is carrying, China may feel that the expectations loaded down on her from the outside — in terms of assuming responsibility — exceed her ability. It may sometimes appear unwilling to be pressured beyond the limit.

What is important is for the United States and others in the west to refrain from any premature judgment suspecting any ill Chinese "strategic intention." Otherwise, a self-fulfilling prophecy would become the real danger.

In conclusion, I would like to quote an ancient Chinese poem composed by Su Shi in the Song Dynasty, dating back nearly 1,000 years ago. It reads as follows:

If we say nice melody flows from the zither,
Then why it remains silent in the box?
If it is the finger making the music,
Then why we cannot hear the sound from the finger?

In short, applying the poem to global affairs, it takes two to tango.

The major changes the world is undergoing have given new impetus to U.S.-Sino relations. China and the United States both need to reserve some buffer room within, so as to being able to accommodate each other's occasionally sentimental torrents in a reliable fashion.

If the healing effect of mental power were applied to Sino-U.S. irritants, a smooth process of mutual adaptation and trust-building would be facilitated. In this sense, by steering the Sino-U.S. relations toward a higher degree of maturity, we shall not allow ourselves to be carried away in time of success, and not be broken down in time of crisis.

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