(Reprinted from various newspapers in Asia) TOM PLATE WRITES: If our future is not to be dulled by the dead weight of the past, then a clear-headed prioritisation of the issues of the 21st century needs to be undertaken. This means keeping Asia – and thus China – in the top spot of the global conversation. US President Barack Obama’s diplomatic trip this week to Asia is welcome indeed.
Obama has only two years of his eight-year presidency left but that’s enough time for a more original, deeper contribution to the Sino-US history book than he has made so far. An eventual “hot war” between the two would not only be unaffordable but would be injurious to everyone’s health. A brilliant US-China policy could prove a kind of global affordable care act.
Up to now, the much-hyped US “pivot” to Asia has been almost a self-deception, with Washington’s mental energies glued to Syria far more than, for example, strategically situated Singapore.
For understandable reasons of all-consuming domestic political pressures – more than any lack of international common sense – Washington is still ensnared in the miseries and poisons of the past. This has led to missed opportunities for carefully thought-out, if inherently complex, China initiatives. Instead of continuing to be absorbed by the likes of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Obama and his team over the next two years should spend more of their foreign-policy energy on Asia. There should be no reverse pivot.
It is utterly foolish to assume that President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang don’t have much to offer; in fact, they impress almost everyone as being very capable indeed. And it is stupid to believe that simply because they are of Communist persuasion, they shouldn’t be consulted and listened to by the US president and his team as often as their attention can be engaged. Only the moral infant – or the intellectually insecure – is attentive only to those with whom basic agreement is foretold, or easy to achieve.
US diplomacy needs to get out from underneath the intellectual sloth of its bureaucracies and mix it up more with people who can bring something new to the table. In fact, there are a number of Asian leaders, especially Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and the Philippines’ Benigno Aquino, who can offer America different and invaluable perspectives. The world, as we all know, is now all but a universal global entity. We really are all in this together.
Let America listen more to others. After all, with unprecedented rapidity and scale, China ought to win some sort of global prize for so dramatically improving the economic lot of its 1.36 billion people. What the sprawling nation has accomplished in the past three decades is almost unbelievable – and probably unprecedented. On the tiny population end of the scale, of course, there is Singapore, which deserves some sort of global award for the best overall selection and implementation of national public policy over many decades. It has been some show there.
The Philippines doesn’t get much positive publicity, of course, but it has been making healthy strides, and resolutely deserves Washington’s notice for remaining a democracy – unlike Myanmar, which has never been one, and Thailand, which apparently doesn’t want to be one again. Even shamefully backward and scary North Korea, which has now dramatically released two captive Americans, finally looks to be considering joining the Asian parade. Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other country – might not its new president be worth America’s rapt attention on certain issues?
Huge obstacles threaten to derail the through train to the future. The list – from the troubling unsettlement in Hong Kong (a situation which Beijing needs to negotiate further along careful lines) to the ever-present potential of religious extremism throughout the region – is long. But only one issue consistently merits top ranking. That is the relationship between China and America.
Sure, the governing elites of both countries should be able to maintain it at a minimum level – say, at least above boiling point. But is that the best we can do? Inspired statesmanship on both sides of the Pacific needs to raise the relationship to new heights. That’s the real test for the governments in Beijing and Washington – taking it to the next level when many others seem pessimistic and tired and stuck in the past.
This is the challenge of our epoch. As far as I am concerned, the presidents of the US and China cannot meet often enough. What’s more important? Crossing into the frontiers of the 21st century means taking on the challenges of the new. The new now is the rise of Asia – led by China. It’s rather obvious if you stop to think.
Loyola Marymount University professor Tom Plate is the author of many books about Asia, from Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew to the current In the Middle of China’s Future: Tom Plate on Asia. The veteran journalist recently completed a three-city lecture tour of China