CHINA: Why Beijing Needs to Take It Slowly

A BOOK EXCERPT. Adapted from “In the Middle of The Future: Tom Plate on Asia,” to be published here in the U.S. next month by Marshall Cavendish International. TOM PLATE WRITES: Asia did not achieve its current status on the world stage as an overnight success. Hardly. But despite millennia of development, the region was severely set back — to offer a very obvious example — by the Second World War. Even Asia’s victors had a hard time regaining their balance, additionally slowed by the mainly abrupt and disruptive withdrawal of Europe’s colonial powers. And, of course, the Chinese will emphasize Western imperialism and so on.

But by the mid-90s you could see the penumbra of the future— the outlines of the Asian Century. Yet as a Westerner you saw this only if you were traveling. The U.S. media was otherwise preoccupied with almost everything and anything else. Probably our businessmen saw the future best because they had to deal with Asia up front and personal.

For your American journalist, however, there is a date in his mind that works best for him as the true watershed — the passing of the baton from the American Century to the Asian Century. And that occurred three years early, as it were: on 1 July 1997. This was the historic moment when London was required to give back Hong Kong to Beijing after harboring it in its colonial bosom for 157 years.

Such a geographically tiny place, but such a huge gem, and so vast a span of political symbolism: for the return of Hong Kong restored a more natural order to contemporary world politics, and reassured the many worriers in the heart of China that their patience had indeed borne fruit — and perhaps further patience was the winning hand to play.

May China continue to remain patient and show restraint so as not to induce America itself to blunder. Remember what Lee Kuan Yew said to me back in 1996 when I wrote my first column of his Singapore: “Where could China go wrong? Impatience; wanting to make faster progress than circumstances allow; pushing too hard; taking shortcuts that could set them back.”

A very helpful 2013 trip to mainland China served to reinforce this feeling that China’s best game is the long game, but it will be more difficult for this colossus to settle into that natural historic rhythm if it feels pushed or crowded or hemmed in by the United States.

Which is why I left China this past summer a little concerned; I worry about the way we sometimes tend to talk about each other. We need to be much more careful. Maybe I do worry too much but it does seem to me that the Sino-U.S. relationship is better than the words we sometimes use to describe it.

I have noticed two horrible phrases in particular befouling the Sino-U.S. vocabulary, like unwanted bats buzzing across an antiquated radar. They add stress to the relationship by emphasizing an unpleasant past instead of moving forward optimistically.

On the U.S. side, consider the phrase “containment of China.” On the Chinese side, the phrase sometimes used is “peaceful coexistence.” I hate both of them, to be blunt about it.

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. (The fancy word here is suzerainty.) 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. That’s its job.

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 misconception 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 2011 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 yet again. It feared Hanoi’s controlling all of Southeast Asia (note: not unlike the domino-theorists of the West!!!). His view is that Beijing will tend to default to the tactic of “preemptive deterrence” rather 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 do we really do enough of that?

Here’s another phrase, sometimes used in China, that adds to anxiety. No one in my experience in the States now uses the two words “peaceful coexistence” anymore, as they are so unpleasantly redolent of the Cold War.

Americans, you see, have a faint and extremely negative recollection about the phrase. We recall how it was such the favorite of Soviet officials — and so insincerely. 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 in the concluding 1953 agreement with India over Tibet. So when I heard it used by high-level Chinese figures, I almost fell over in dismay.

To my mind “peaceful coexistence” gives you little more than a 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 an aim than “peaceful coexistence” — if that is the best we are going to be able to do — then the world is in very serious trouble.

In addition, 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 the Chinese would cease using phrases that remind Americans of what the Chinese want them to forget.

So don’t rush, China; try to avoid some of the mistakes we in the West made. I vividly recall an interview in the late nineties in Beijing with the late Qian Qichen, then the foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China.

Years before, Qichen had been deputy editor-in-chief of the book Diplomacy of Contemporary China gifted me by my contact in the Chinese foreign ministry, Mr Han Tao. The English translation did not appear until1990. But in this very useful book, the phrase “in the fullness of time” appears, at a number of strategic points in the extensive reviewof China’s diplomacy since 1 October 1949. That phrase — “in the fullness of time” — is used when referring to history’s way of slowly and surely getting things done, such as with the presumed return of Taiwan to the Motherland.

And so in the conversation in Beijing, when I felt that the foreign minister was showing impatience about Taiwan, and he was suggesting otherwise, I reminded him of that phrase.

“It says here ‘in the fullness of time’, I remind you.”

Qichen was a little startled, said he hadn’t realized the book had been published in English, and then parried: “Well, that doesn’t mean we can wait forever!”

Then me saying: “But neither does it mean you have to have action by next Monday, American style, right?”

Qichen nodded with a smile. “It just has to happen some time.”

I nodded agreeably. “To me,” I said, “China as a civilization has almost always had a more mature and wiser sense of time and patience than we in the West.”

A smile crossed the foreign minister’s face.

I meant, adding: “Why rush?”

Why rush indeed?

Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies. The veteran U.S. journalist and columnist is the author of many books on Asia, including the well-received ‘Giants of Asia’ series, and his latest work – IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUTURE Tom Plate on Asia, recently published by Marshall Cavendish Editions (Singapore). © 2014 Thomas Gordon Plate. The sequel – IN THE MIDDLE OF CHINA’S FUTURE: Tom Plate on the Stunning Surge – is due out next Fall.  This excerpt has appeared in The Khaleej Times daily newspaper of Dubai (  and on the website of CHINA-US FOCUS (

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