Let us recall that almost two decades ago, a cocky William Jefferson Clinton, then president of a country but two-centuries-plus old, bluntly informed Jiang Zemin that his country, of many millennia, with a memory constructed, like the Great Wall itself, mainly along east-west lines, was “on the wrong side of history.” This was in 1997.
Whatever the then-general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party might then have thought of that, he decided not to return the volley by impolitely laughing in the American’s face. The exchange, after all, took place in Washington. But since then, the former Chinese president, now 89, has presumably enjoyed a few chortles with colleagues. China, governed by one-party communist rule that’s often depicted in the West as the root of all possible political evil, may be on history’s wrong side; but if so, isn’t it rather odd that governments will jump to the Sino side quickly enough these days – or at least seek to play both sides of the ideological street?
And so let us also recall that almost two decades ago, on a sodden night filled with images of British dignitaries all but holding their noses as they reluctantly handed over the keys to Hong Kong and tearfully boarded their outbound yacht, China looked to be less on the losing side than the receiving side of history. This was also in 1997.
So what do we have today? What we have is Brits cheering, as if he were David Beckham, the visiting President Xi Jinping, as if for all the world one big jolly Chinese Santa Claus – with Great Britain greedily peering into his goody-bag. You just had to love the sight of Xi’s triumphant victory parade to Buckingham Palace (he and glam wife Peng Liyuan royal guest-ing overnight), uber-riding in a royal carriage, not to mention the solemnly attentive joint session of Parliament.
So history is flipping over on its back and landing on its ‘wrong’ side?
Let’s give the Brits this, they know what they are doing. Outside of the average successful Hollywood mogul, hardly anyone is better at feigning deep sincerity than a British official. With their own long history of hard knocks, the British are not about to permit past loyalty to block future survivability. The business bonding that took place between the British prime minister and the Chinese president was hardly designed as a geopolitical terrorist act to blow up the U.S.-British alliance. But without rewriting the Magna Carta or slapping a Karl Marx wing onto the British Museum, London looks to be cutting commercial deals with the People’s Republic of China as if there was no space for ‘ideology’ on its bottom line.
America, fumbling anew in the Middle East, and well quagmired into its quadrennial domestic presidential campaign, seems off-balance. It is as if the U.S. – despite all its carrier fleets and policy pivots to Asia — remains psychologically unprepared for the rise of China. Too bad the America failed to hear out Asia’s wiser voices, such as Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean policy-school dean and widely admired UN diplomat who back in the nineties was to lay out for the West the coming new global reality.
But precisely because it was forced out of Hong Kong, the British got that and have been mulling it over ever since. London, despite the vaunted “special relationship” with Washington, was the first to break ranks and go for AIIB, the looming Asian infrastructure investment bank that’s key to Beijing’s neo-Marshall Plan for the 21st century; and so now – surprise! – the city of London looks to be China’s chosen pad for the launch of offshore renmimbi bonds.
Who exactly are these Parliamentary reds cozying up to the Commies and yanking down the trans-Atlantic relationship? It’s the blue-blooded Tory party of Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, not the crazy party with its dusty socialist tendencies and – Tony Blair aside – uncanny ability to scare the life out of most voters. It’s the party of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who turned into silly putty at the hands of Deng Xiaoping when he insisted on the return of Hong Kong.
It is just possible, I admit, that Hong Kong is not the center of the geopolitical universe. But it is not hard to make the case that the handover on 1 July 1997 was the political starting line, if two-and-a-half years before the starter’s gun was to go off, of the 21st Asian Century.
And so here we are today, the pragmatic English cutting special deals that bode to create a new relationship with the rising power of Asia. This is plainly smart, and I can only congratulate them on their historical consistency. Let me worshipfully recall Lord Palmerston’s famous mantra (as nearly everyone does these days): “Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
It’s probably easier to wind up on the wrong side of history if you haven’t lived through that much of it. Perhaps the British, with their gloried past as a naval power, can sense a sea change coming better than anyone. The Americans have not really begun to chart their own coherent course in the wake of the surfacing new Asian Century. And so the future going seems destined to get rough. Maybe, if the Americans won’t listen to the Mahbubanis, they’ll listen to the Brits? Maybe.
Columnist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the author of the new book ‘The Fine Art of the Political Interview’ (Marshall Cavendish).
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Dealing with China