TOM PLATE WRITES – They say some things have to be seen to be believed, which is probably why the sight of a jaunty Mark Zuckerberg social-networking through Tiananmen Square on a bicycle (of all things) was almost unbelievable — unless you were there. Am I saying that the chairman, chief executive, and co-founder of Facebook rather made a fool of himself? Well, yes, I am. But in one way or the other, at one time or the other – whether peddling a bicycle or bloviating on a mainland lecture tour (me) – we all have made fools of ourselves about China. In this regard the multi-billionaire Harvard dropout loses no more face than any of us, myself surely included.
China is hard to get right. Once the anti-social network of violence associated with Islamist extremism is contained – and it will be (in part because of the emerging dynamics of the larger peaceful Muslim world) – China will re-emerge as the West’s prime quandary.
There is a fundamental reason for this that can be illuminated by the Hypothesis of the Twin Earth. Use your imagination, as the late Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam urged his students, to explain that reality is not just in the mind, and envision two planets existing at the same time that are virtually identical – person by person, tree by tree, barking dog by dog, annoying child by annoying child – except for one thing: their water.
Now this is key: On Planet Earth, water is exactly as we earthlings know it: H2O. But on Planet Twin, while it would look to Planet Earth-ers just like H2O, its chemistry is different – let me dub it Shui Too Oh-Oh. So if a Planet Earth person were to visit with Planet Twin, they might understand each other well enough, until they came to the subject of water: For then they would be talking about two different things; for them, their water is different. Such confusion now roils the politics of the South China Sea.
This metaphor helps fathom the depths of the current political storm over the islands, islets, and semi-manufactured sand landing strips from Planet Twin, which sees the world one way; whereas Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, on Planet Earth, see the water in another way. The reality divide has become fearsome. Chinese fishing vessels swarm the waters as if they own it; smaller nations push back in anger. Boats are bumping, crew are jumping, politicians’ fists are pumping, U.S. warships are intruding and over-flying … so who’s losing or has lost their mind?
To the West, it’s the People’s Republic of China. It seems that in the span of a handful of years the China policy ‘brand’ has gone from ‘peaceful rising’ (acclaimed as sensible) to – well – ‘in your face’ (viewed as confrontational). But the Chinese view is that the waters of the South China Sea are not just H20, as the West would have it, but Shui Too Oh-Oh: “The South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters were first discovered, named, and used by the early Chinese, as well as administered by successive governments, and have been considered inherent national territory and waters since ancient times, as is attested in numerous historical records, local gazetteers, and maps…. The Nansha (Spratly) Islands, Shisha (Paracel) Islands, Chungsha (Macclesfield Bank) Islands, and Tungsha (Pratas) Islands (together known as the South China Sea Islands) were first discovered, named, and used by the ancient Chinese, and incorporated into national territory and administered by imperial Chinese governments…. Any claim to sovereignty over, or occupation of, these areas by other countries is illegal, irrespective of the reasons put forward or methods used …”
That seems rather in-your-face coming from the Communist People’s Republic of China, don’t you think?
But hold on a minute: This alternative definition comes not from Beijing but Taipei. In fact it is the official position of the government of Taiwan, known to itself but not recognized by many others as the Republic of China; and it is virtually the same as the mainland’s. Thus the fierce South China Sea bifurcation turns out not as if Communist versus the West, but as Chinese versus the rest. What we have then is not a new cold war (Beijing replacing Moscow), but a history-based resurrection of claims and counterclaims pressing onto the present.
Planet Shui Too Oh-Oh views parts of its chemistry as critically different from that of the West because they bubble up from a different place. For the hundred years prior to the ending of the war against Japan, the Chinese felt oppressed, their huge wartime contribution against fascism underappreciated, and their postwar status as a major country patronized. A relatively new book, not circulated in the West, offers this consensus view on China’s perspective: “From 1842, when the Treaty of Nanjing was forced on China by the British imperialists, to the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, Western Powers imposed upon China up to 1,000 unequal treaties by means of force and fraud…. China had become a semi-colonial country.” The volume – ‘China is the World Anti-Fascist War’ – was skillfully put together by Peng Xunhou, a professor at the Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army.
The glaring gap in perceptions won’t be smoothed over by bike rides by billionaires or by legalistic decisions of a UN court. Again (to lean on our metaphor), where the West sees seawater, the Chinese see nasty currents of a tortured past. As the late Professor Putnam laconically put it: “Cut the pie any way you like, ‘meanings’ just ain’t in the head!” This is the lesson of the Twin Earth metaphor. The South China sea ain’t just water. (This column first appeared in the South China Morning Post – http://www.scmp.com/author/tom-plate)

Professor Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the author of ‘In the Middle of China’s Future,’ among other books on Asia.