[Pix above of US Secretary of Sate Mike Pompeo] TOM PLATE WRITES – Let’s get some simple facts straight: Hong Kong is not in the sovereign hands of the People’s Republic of China due to crass invasion or communist subversion or anything nefarious. This historic territory was semi-willingly deeded back by the British after occupying it, with their usual remote devotion to indigenous rights, for more than a century and a half. This was during their colonial days in the sun, granting inhabitants no more democracy or proper representation than was their trademark way with their other colonies. Today’s pathetic plaints from British MPs in London about Beijing’s rough handling of their former possession is more of a joke than a ‘Mr Bean’ comedy routine.
For similar farcical value, observe the U.S. State Department’s holier-than-thou handling of Beijing’s outrage over a meeting between an American consul and
‘pro-democracy’ activists. This presumably was not the first such rendezvous of the inappropriate sort, but it needs to be the last. Beijing especially loudly complained, though it is true – it does complain a lot. On this occasion though the rage has merit. Tense Hong Kong, over which the prospect of further tragedy hovers, is not something that should be trifled with by either otherwise professional U.S. diplomats or by bloviating American officials, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his outspoken spokes-people. Instead, a simple, if very quiet apology should have been offered the Xi government, trying to maintain political breathing distance from its fired-up anti-Hong Kong nationalists; they’d like nothing more than for the PLA to storm in there with all the ferocity and misplaced rectitude of French paratroopers hitting Algeria.
Will America ever get out of the annoying habit of telling other countries how to run their business? Even when the U.S. is right, which is sometimes the case, unsolicited counsel usually triggers resentment. For his part, President Donald Trump is said to have assured Chairman Xi Jinping in July of his focus on the trade-talks, not Hong Kong. Since the former mess is mainly of Trump’s own birthing, while the latter is not something about which he can do much (U.S. military intervention would be illegal under international law and beyond stupid), this is a sensible calculation from a president whose trademark is to give the meaning of the word mercurial a whole new dimension of time and space.
The agonizing, tragic Hong Kong polarization comes as the official PRC-U.S.A relationship has become a mess. It is now mainly believed in Washington and New York that China can do no right because the ruling Communist Party can only do wrong. More subtle alternative analyses are now practically subject to the whiff of treason. Forget the formerly broadly accepted Kissinger formulation whereby a sighing Beijing notes the reality of the continuing U.S. military presence in East Asia (be it sometimes ever so obnoxious) while in return a newly mature Washington accepts with equanimity the continuing rise of China (be it sometimes ever so pushy). The fact of the matter is that the U.S. will be floating on the back of its Seventh Fleet in the Pacific for a long time to come, and China, as a matter of geography, encircled by 14 other sovereign states, will keep building more boats for existential enlargement.
Both sides must accept the world they are stuck with it. The U.S. should bring back not only the Kissinger notion but also the Clinton era policy of aggressive engagement. Rather than pick fights it cannot win – or afford to finance, or much less afford to lose – the U.S. should relate to the PRC by spurning no sensible compromise, dismissing no obvious way-out, and using mutual insincerity as necessary solvent for cranky tight spots. America’s ‘nattering nabobs of negativity’ (to steal a phrase) and China’s ‘pure-as-the-driven-Mao’ leftists need to be watched for the war-hawks they are. On both sides dangerous insanities hover.
If we insist on having things all our own way, then we had better be prepared to risk a doomsday war with China. That’s such an idiotic option in this nuclear age, you might want to book a session with an anger-management therapist if that’s how you want to go. The term ‘Chimerica’ – yes, I know, a weird phrase – was once used to suggest a permanent China-American parallelism, an odd-couple relationship for sure, but a non-volatile one. The goal is not for America to become more socialist/communist or for China to become more American/Western. The end game is to have no end to the game at all – but instead to piece together an ongoing multi-level process of bilateral political interaction that brackets out brinkmanship.
To this end, a multi-media teachable moment in international relations relevant to what Kissinger termed “the key problem of our time” hit me the other day while leaving a movie theater. For your consideration: The Farewell, just released. Directed by Beijing-born Lulu Wang, now living in Los Angeles, and featuring American rapper Awkwafina (sedated within a top-notch Asian cast), the plot posits that while there can be a valid American way for doing things, there can be a different but equally valid Chinese way for doing the same thing. The movie insists that before shooting your mouth off, we give the other side enough time to show that maybe its way might have at least equal potential. As I left the dark theater for the parking lot, I thought about Hong Kong, caught in the vise of history and tearing up not only because of the tear gas. A better China-US relationship might have helped avert this ongoing tragedy, which, for all we know, may be a precursor to larger tragedy yet. For sure, the bilateral relationship could benefit dramatically from much more astute direction and, like The Farewell, offer an unexpectedly positive surprise ending.
University Professor Tom Plate’s latest book on US-China relations is titled Yo-Yo Diplomacy. An earlier version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, where Prof Tom has been a regular contributor since 2016.