ELIZABETH SOELISTIO WRITES FROM INDONESIA – Prof Tom Plate, author of the Asia bestseller “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew,” visited Singapore in May with a new book that delves into U.S.-China diplomacy.
The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) invited Plate, from the faculty of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, to talk about his “Yo-Yo Diplomacy: An American Columnist Tackles the Ups-and-Downs Between China and the US”, published by Marshall Cavendish Asia. The presentation started with a welcoming round of warm applause for Plate, whose book on Singapore’s founder was a Straits Times bestseller for 40 weeks in 2010, followed by a thoughtful and helpful introduction by LKYSPP Assistant Professor Dr Selina Ho, who started off the questioning [pictured], a 20 minute presentation by Professor and South China Morning Post columnist Plate, and an extensive Q&A with an audience of about 150. The session closed with a book-signing.
With the audience expressing worries regarding fluctuations in the China-U.S. relationship, here are a few highlights, in an edit of the actual transcript, of the session that lasted more than 90 minutes:
Q: How should we view China?
Plate: We should consider China special because of the history of suffering endured by its people. China has about 20 percent of the world’s population and has to be respected. China is not one person and one entity but many moving parts and is somewhat more coherent than the U.S. What we have is the possibility for a lot of friction, and some of it is unnecessary.
I recently spoke with the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, and he’s worried. America is in some disarray so China starts believing it’s almost at the top. China is not at the top — it’s getting there, and fast — but a lot of things can happen prior to the U.S. midterm election. It looks like we are falling because of the president we have.
Two years ago, I gave a talk at the China Daily in Beijing during which I said, “If you’re strategizing on the basis that America is going down fast, you are making a key bad assumption. … America right now is on a plateau and [China is] coming. It doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily bypass the plateau and it doesn’t mean that [America’s] going down. Just be careful of your past assumptions. Things are more complicated.”
Q: What’s the potential downside of the U.S.-China relationship?
Plate: The world order that we see now is the rise of China and the shakiness of the U.S. Peace and stability will be hard to maintain if the U.S. and China are antagonists all the time.
The level of trust between the U.S. and China is low but the sense of competition is high. The US thinks China wants to take over the world and China thinks that the U.S. wants to contain China all over the world. America’s default position in this is to go back to the Cold War and re-live 1989, waiting for the Great Wall of China to fall like the Berlin Wall. This is going to be the ‘test’ of American diplomacy [in the minds of the U.S. establishment living in the past].
If this is what we think, there will be negative economic consequences, bilateral and planning, as well as joint efforts, will be very difficult. It will be hard even for a skillfully managed foreign policy, such as Singapore’s, to have a balanced relationship between the two countries.
That’s exactly what we are doing. Instead, what we need is a condominium relationship between Washington and Beijing, meaning there has to be a very high level of coordination and joint consultation on decisions, even to the disadvantage of some of the smaller countries. Japan won’t like it, but … if we don’t go that way, we’re in for a rough period.
Q: Do you think U.S. and China will ever go to war? If so, do you think it’d lead to World War III?
Plate: There could be some brushes on the South China Sea. I mean, our Navy guys just dive in to have fun; then, the Chinese pilots, with their own top guns, will go at it, some of whom are very young people with a whole lot of testosterone. Beijing may call for “world peace” but bad things could happen …. Weapon systems these days work so fast that things can very suddenly escalate.
But I have to say, I wish to stick to my optimism. I think China and the U.S. can achieve this level of cooperation and I want this level of cooperation. That’s what I’m preaching.
Q: What we see today is very different from the Cold War. China is a very successful economic actor, so what is your sense of the rest of the countries that surround China or interact more with China?
Plate: China has fourteen countries on its border, including Vietnam. Some are friendly and some are not, while the United States has two countries on its border. We have Canada to the North with police on horses and Mexico to the South seemingly living half in lower Texas. So America is in a strategically different geopolitical situation.
Henry Kissinger famously was asked, “What do you think about Vietnam?” after the Vietnam war and he something like, ‘I think, you can do almost anything successfully with Vietnam except fight them.’
From that perspective, I don’t think America’s ideological advantage is very big right now.
Let me explain: 20 years ago when I tried to say, “Don’t think of the U.S. and China as black and white, think of everything as long and continuous,” it was a hard sell because of our country’s conceit. People would say, “Who is this guy? Some sort of Communist?!” But now, particularly after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, we have lost a lot of our moral edge….
America gives lectures around the world on how to run a country, but let’s get our own house in order. Let’s get more black males out of prison and employed. Let’s worry about some of the justice issues in the United States….
Q: I used to live in Singapore but I am now from Taiwan. So I understand the diplomacy, lobbies, and this morality that you’re talking about. I want to ask you about China, We know that once US energy and oil start to become a problem, or once Tibet and Taiwan become a problem for China, each side will feel the need to do something. What do you think will happen?
Plate: I was asked by a very smart man from Singapore what the U.S. would do if China keeps pushing on Taiwan. He thinks the U.S. will not do anything, but I worry that he is wrong. This contributor from China Daily said the Chinese believe America is washed up. But the U.S. Pacific Command out of Pearl Harbor has serious boats in the water and bad stuff can happen.
One time when Obama met Xi, Obama listed 2-3 things that China better not act on and I think Taiwan was on that list. If America acts as though it is morally superior, it will feel compelled to defend it values. Going back historically, the Kuomintang was this monstrous Chinese government that took over for quite a while before Taiwan evolved into what it is now. I think the Chinese would be crazy to militarily try to quash Taiwan, but it may be a historical inevitability. I just don’t know.
I don’t think the Chinese want to acquire a territory, like the former Soviet Union did its bordering Eastern European countries, but they would like to dominate certain economic sectors. Even so, I think Lee Kuan Yew was right to say that it’s better for the Communist Party of China to continue in a competent way to run the country than for the country to come apart. It’s the lesser evil but that’s the real world….
… At the end of 1998-99, the Cox Commission on Chinese Spying [Cox Report] did this Congressional investigation and found out that China was spying on the U.S, which became a front-page story. I was shocked! A foreign country spying? But this became a big issue because they couldn’t get Bill Clinton on Monica, so they tried to get him on China. Actually, I’m in favor of spying. The more we know about the other country, the better. [laughter]
China has been trying to develop the Confucius Institute network to teach the Chinese language but now some U.S. campuses are reconsidering the deal because Chinese instructors are expressing pro-Chinese opinions to American students. When we go over there and bring Voice of America and the like to Asia, we do nothing like that whatsoever, right? Are we so insecure in our own values? It’s laughable, but it’s [irrational China fear] happening again and I can’t believe it.
Q: My question is on the United States, China, and faith. It’s not often that we get a professor from a Jesuit university, but apparently “the number of Christians in China is growing so steadily that by the end of 2030 there’ll be more church-goers than in America.” What are your thoughts on this Christian revival in China and courses for it?
Plate: There’s a new book about the Christian revival in China – ‘The Souls of China,’ by Ian Johnson. A very great book. It is happening. One explanation is that religion is filling the vacuum created by the decline of pure communist ideology. Xi understands that; he therefore insists that the university revert to teaching socialism, but I think he sees religion as a force that is to be managed rather than tomahawked. The trick for religious expansion is not to threaten the sovereignty of the state — that’s the biggest issue with China.
I’ve been praising the effort of the Pope and President Xi Jinping to come to an agreement on issues in China, which are terribly important issues, and the Pope appears to be willing to secularize the process of selecting new bishops, to a certain extent. …. Now, China’s president when he travels has to bring with him a lot of security because of his anti-corruption campaign; and, ironically, the current Pope is in greater need than ever of a secure safety net. There are souls in the far conservative wing of the Church that wish the current Pope would go to hell because he wants to do this deal. But I think it’s important for this to happen. Pope Francis is right. After all, he is a Jesuit!
In America, some people prefer LMU to UCLA because of its religious identity and freedom. There’s a chapel on campus, but no one has to go. More than half of our students are non-Catholic but some parents like to give their children the option — the religious option — which you can’t get at a secular university. If the Jesuit Pope could pull off a deal, I think it’ll be good for Xi. The only way to work this out is compromise. Neither side will get 100%. And, as in almost all international negotiations, neither side should get 100% if the aim is a stable agreement…..