THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THIS COLUMN BY TOM PLATE WAS PUBLISHED EARLIER THIS WEEK BY THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST – No time to be polite: the most disgraceful and unnecessary deterioration amid the global health and economic crisis is the China-U.S. relationship that continues to sour. Casualties from a nuclear war would dwarf COVID-19 in the category of global catastrophes.
The cold front in Washington toward China began surfacing under President Barack Obama, who felt predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had been too tolerant of Beijing’s insincerities, evasions and perceived lies. Beijing didn’t help its cause (if it cared) by plunging-forward arrogantly – as if it wanted the whole world to notice what a big shot it had become. Which inevitably it did: After China’s formal induction into the global economic order via World Trade Organization membership in 2001, Beijing went on a big-time ego trip that was, in one sense, anything but unusual for a rising, muscle-flexing power (culminating in the showy 2008 Olympics). But not all the games Beijing played out were such fun for the West to watch, especially when viewed (wrongly or rightly) as intellectual theft, currency gamesmanship, intelligence vacuuming and happy emoji sloganeering.
This stretch of reach gave restless elements in the U.S. good reason to raise red flags that have been luring Americans over to the side of a new Cold War. This was sad. For a time – during the second Clinton administration especially – it seemed to me that the U.S. had patched together a good-enough formula: Live with the reality of China (pluses and minuses), as China has to live with our minuses and pluses; and be not diverted by some ideological dream about changing it. Realistically, change can only come from the strong will and wishes of the Chinese people; in trying to engineer change from Washington, the U.S. is likely to wind up changing itself first, in ways not desirable.
In this pluralistic world, compromise is not in itself unethical but a practical option for stability. There is so much the two need to do together. They could lead the world to lowering nuclear arsenals, heightening climate cooperation and tightening up the global health-warning system. And they could do so in a businesslike, real-world manner: For the notion of planned zero growth might warm some hearts, but it is a non-starter. Many of the toughest problems – income disparity, health-system improvements, etc. – will not improve on their own, cost-free.
At the same time, they will only get worse if reckless growth is tyrannically insisted upon. A better world order – which means bilateral peacemaking, not blustery warmongering – will require citizen buy-in on both sides of the Pacific. Both governments should lower the bitter pitch of their propaganda bands. The blame game – whether regarding COVID-19 or anything else – is a loser’s strategy: When all the bodies are counted, and the crisis’ ‘root causes’ found, there will be plenty of blame to go around. Pointing the finger now at China or at anyone misses the point: A pandemic takes widespread ineptitude across all ideologies to scale up to a murderous leviathan. Some nations were slow to respond even after they had been adequately warned by Chinese authorities that a nightmare was coming their way. Why not a book – Why America Slept?
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – that master of philosophical disaster — insisted that the purpose of government was to protect citizens from harm and maintain order. In today’s world, it looks as if threats to personal security come less from sword-brandishing barbarians at the gate than newer unknowns, such as microscopic invaders – and sleepy national leaders. If this is to be the case, then why blow billions on yet another aircraft carrier when your national health-care system is filled with holes? “Whether democratic or authoritarian,” wrote the contemporary historian John Gray in a recent New Statesman magazine, “states that do not meet this Hobbesian test will fail.”
Life doesn’t gift individuals with infinite time to get everything in order, and in its infinite jest will stop the clock when you least expect it. President Trump, his administration now being brought to its knees not by Chinese intelligence agents but by submicroscopic infectious agents, is all but finished, I believe. Thankfully, the U.S. political system spurns lifetime rule. China does not, of course: Yet Chairman Xi Jinping’s notion of the ‘Chinese Dream’ is too narrow a vision for this epoch – as is the juvenile ‘Make America Great Again’ bromide. Why not broaden the vision to make the world peaceful and healthy for once – and for all?
After all, they both could have done better with the COVID-19 crisis. The one was conspicuous by his relative absence: It took Chairman Xi Jinping two months to visit Wuhan. The other has been conspicuous by his fumbling presence: President Donald Trump took two months to come to his senses about the COVID-19 threat – and it’s not certain he has completed the intellectual journey. Still, there is nothing inherently wrong with China, or the U.S., despite political systems that are both mutually incomparable while also incompatible. Yes, China’s neo-Maoist leftists scare the shivers out of me; so do America’s neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic rightists ¬– not to mention other cretinous products of post-liberal politics. Rather than patronizing his deplorables (as per Trump), at least Xi is pushing back at them.
So what is the problem? It’s that the relationship between the two state entities, less so the individuals leading those entities, is totally misconceived; and bilateral policies are wrong. They don’t fit the times. Instead of a peace agreement, the world’s two largest economies and militaries appear to be working toward a suicide pact.
“Madness is rare in individuals,” warned German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) “but in nations, and ages, it is the rule.” Yes, madness – that’s it. Pure madness.
Professor Tom Plate is Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs at Loyola Marymount University, and vice president of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles.