FIGHTING WORDS: How to Complicate an Already-Complicated Relationship




12 July 2013


LOS ANGELES – On the whole, a recent trip to China left me more hopeful than ever about the all-important U.S.-China relationship. Media officials, journalists and journalism students alike (my basic happy audience in three mainland cities) clearly want the relationship to improve. They want Americans to understand China better.  For our part, every authoritative poll shows Americans wanting to think the best of China.

Which is why I left China so worried – I worry about the way we sometimes tend to talk about each other. We need to be more careful.

Maybe I do worry too much but it does seem to me that our actual relationship is better than the words we sometimes use to describe it. Recently I have noticed two horrible phrases in particular befouling the Sino-U.S. vocabulary, like unwanted bats buzzing in on bad radar. They add stress to the relationship by emphasizing an unpleasant past instead of moving forward.

On the U.S. side, I call your attention to the phrase “containment of China.” On the Chinese side, the phrase they sometimes use is “peaceful coexistence.” I hate both of them. Let me explain that in international diplomacy, which traffics in issues of war and peace, loose language can cause problems. It is better to use careful language than risky stuff.

CHINA CONTAINMENT: The “containment” concept famously emerged from the tense and extended Cold War with the former Soviet Union. It was the core operational idea behind the Western alliance’s strategy to push back on the Soviet Union’s fearsome propensity to annex contiguous provinces, such as all of Eastern Europe, by force or threat of force.

But that’s not the situation today. China is not the same as the former Soviet Union, and it never has been. Millennia of history inform us that China ticks to a different clock, aiming to be viewed (and in fact to become) the undisputed geopolitical and honorific center of East Asia. It’s not more territory for which it lusts but belated respect and, in some modern sense, economic tribute: Beijing, after all, is looking at 1.3 or 1.4 billion mouths to feed.

So let us make sure we know what we are talking about. A policy of pulling “containment” out of the Cold War fridge to defrost it for new recycled usage strikes me as intellectually lazy and dangerously misconceived. It might lead the West to slip and slide on a basic misconceptions and thus misunderstand motives and misinterpret methods.

For example, China’s quarrels with neighbors over neighborhood islands may seem silly and indeed foolishly provocative to us, and at our level of analysis they are just that. But on their level the effort represents not expansion but restoration. In his perceptive book “On China,” Henry A. Kissinger cites as an illustrative example China’s military brushes with Vietnam as a strategy of trying to avoid being ganged up on again. It feared Hanoi’s control of all of Southeast Asia (note: not unlike the domino-theorists of the West). His view is that Beijing uses the tactic of “preemptive deterrence” early on in a dispute to prevent a serious blowup later on.  Whether this tactic is wise or even fair is a good question. But if we want to understand why the Chinese are doing what they are doing, we had better read our Kissinger — in other words, do our homework. But have we?

PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE: Here’s another phrase I hear these days that’s adding to my anxiety. No one in my experience in the States now uses the two words “peaceful coexistence” any more, as they are so unpleasantly redolent of the Cold War. And in fact I thought the phrase had been buried long ago in Stalin’s tomb. But a recent trip to China proved me wrong. And so again  — I worry.

Americans, you see, have a faint and extremely negative recollection about the phase. We recall how Soviet officials often used it – and used it with enormous insincerity. How can we ever forget, right? Then Mao’s China picked up on it. The legendary Zhou Enlai, China’s most famous premier, had it inserted it in the concluding 1953 agreement with India over Tibet. So when I heard it used by high-level Chinese figures I met earlier this month in China, I almost fell over in dismay.

To my mind “peaceful coexistence” gives you little more than the mere jungle minimum in a bilateral relationship. And that is far from ideal in this new world of extensive economic interdependence and minute-by-minute inter-connectedness.  If relations between China and the U.S. have no more lofty a goal than “peaceful coexistence” – if that is the best we are going to be able to do — then, my friends, the world is in very serious trouble.

My dear friends in China: If you throw the term “peaceful coexistence” at the average American, they will think of the Cold War.  But what China understandably wants is for the U.S. to abandon Cold War thinking. It will help, then, if they will cease using phrases that remind Americans of what the Chinese want them to forget.

Journalist and Professor Tom Plate’s new book is “In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia,” due out in Oct. He is Loyola Marymount’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and the author of the award-winning and best-selling ‘Giants of Asia’ series. He was recently the honored invited guest of the All-China Journalists Assn, which organized a speaking tour in the cities of Guangzhou, Wuhan and Beijing. © Pacific Perspectives Media Center, Beverly Hills, 2013.

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