AMI FOUNDER TOM PLATE WRITES – Last week the 45th President of the United States paid proper tribute to the People’s Republic of China – which, by the way, would have been a whirlwind week for the Trump Administration even without the big-deal dinner for leader Xi Jinping. And though the summit venue was the annoyingly opulent tuhao-class Mar-a-Lago resort in ever-humid Florida, it was otherwise calming on the nerves to observe our often off-key Donald Trump saying and doing, for once, the right thing.
Trump was in celebrity toasting mode at the Mar-a-Lago show. With Melania, his wife of 12 years, on his shoulder, he rightly praised the “incredibly talented” Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi for 27, and steered clear of the phony-baloney ‘free and frank exchange of views’ verbiage to characterize his “long discussion” with Xi, from which talks, he quipped, “I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing.” For once the joke was not on the president, whether or not he was joking.
China, as even the disturbingly unschooled Trump understands, has arrived. To put the matter bluntly (and to put aside for the moment the U.S. strike on Syria), China is no ordinary nation, and, with all due respect to Japan and its extraordinary place in the world, it is America’s single most important single country-relationship.
But their histories are so different. “It is scarcely appreciated in the West today,” writes Howard W. French, the noted journalist, in his sweeping, refreshing and utterly essential new book ‘Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power’, “that the ‘international system’ we so readily take for granted is actually a recent creation. It took shape between the middle of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth centuries, and started to be cobbled together at the precise moment that China was being subjugated by others and the world order it had sustained….”
The new international system is now working its way into our lives, and change can be upsetting. Many Americans worry about China and some even insist war is inevitable. Call me an idiot optimist, but this is not going to happen. Neither China nor the U. S. will ever invade the sovereign territory of the other. Such primitivism would be nonsensical. There is a no valid moral reason, of any ideological or geopolitical gravity, to justify war. It would be a stupidity – a plunge into a black hole of insanity. Both would be morally guilty of world endangerment. Both governments would reveal themselves as pathetically incompetent.
Serial stupidity is not inevitable. An enduring, high level of cooperation between the two giant powers is the only intelligent way forward if the species itself is not to be endangered by the lowliest level of international non-cooperation: nuclear war. Yet, I suppose anything is possible if you secretly wish for it. For example (and I found this personally hard to stomach) some in the U.S. media rushed to praise the U.S. missile strike on a Syria airfield with near-war lust – dropping their independent, critical role as if it were a false front all along. This cheerleading was so depressing – reminiscent of the media’s go-go lust in 2003 for the Iraq invasion.
Many Chinese believe their nation is the new big thing and the United States is a big old thing. Some Americans agree – that the U.S. is declining while China (in the phrase of Joseph Nye in his nifty book ‘Is the American Century Over?’) “is recovering.” Both sides are only half-right, and this is the paradox of today’s emerging world order. To borrow from Oscar Wilde in his ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’: “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test Reality we must see it on the tight-rope.”
In the present case the tightrope is the Sino-U.S. trying to stay on balanced message. China is rising, obviously, but any serious loss in economic ground speed will cause the giant superliner to stall. When, if ever, will China “overtake” the U.S.? Certainly not tomorrow: China’s population is aging while America’s is freshened by immigration. The two political systems are deeply flawed: the former often moves too rigidly under central command; the latter will freeze up due to constitutional fragmentation and two-party uncivil war. Each in its own way is dysfunctional and at the same time semi-effective. The consequences of China ‘stall’ and American ‘stasis’ would suck the life out of the global economic bloodstream. It is thus in the core national interests of both China and the U.S. to help one another if others are to thrive as well.
The Sino-U.S. relationship hangs on the tightrope of a paradox. To keep from slipping off, each is in need for the other to succeed to maintain balance. Instead of leading to war, the challenge is to keep the geopolitical equipoise steady. Only a balance of mutual need can solidify the peace – and undergird a new world order.
Loyola Marymount Professor Tom Plate, vice president of the Pacific Century Institute and LMU’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is a columnist with the South China Morning Post, where an earlier, longer version of this essay appeared. © Tom Plate 2017