COLUMNIST TOM PLATE WRITES – The decline of the coherence and acumen of American foreign policy would appear to present Beijing with the potential for a century of anything and everything but humiliation. To be sure, historically, the U.S. has demonstrated Olympian bounce-back ability from near-death experiences (from bad economies to bad wars). But from Asia (and not just from China) there are now growing doubts about that. Perhaps foremost among those starting to conclude that America’s prime-time is past is China. But for its part the stumbling Asian giant keeps hitting speed bumps and taking wrong turns of its own that throw it off-course. Policies and pronouncements sometimes seem frozen in a bygone era and fill neighbors and even admirers of its progress with dread or doubt. So, if the 21st century does turn out to be the Asian one – as the prior was an American one and the 19th century was so very British – who will turn out in history’s eyes to be the leader of the Asian pack? The obvious candidate is China. But is it cut out for the leader-of-the-Asian century role?
China might be said to have history on its side: Having survived that hideous ‘century of humiliation’ when China was banged about like a tennis ball by ‘barbarians’, and then drawn through the mud of decades of maddening Maoism, China might fairly deserve a whole century named after it. China certainly had my sympathy when my journalism about Asia started 25 years ago: One couldn’t miss the western ignorance, and rancid racism (notably from the U.S. Congress). Across the entire American political landscape, you could find very few major political figures who seemed to grasp what extraordinary China was all about. One rare exception was America’s 41st President George H.W. Bush, whose background as U.S. representative in Beijing for almost two years in the eighties helped him cook up a useful bilateral relationship with Beijing. This proved of value to his country, not to mention to the president who’d be next up: the young William Jefferson Clinton, from Arkansas. Like most Americans, he knew very little about China, but learned on the job at warp speed, lucking out in having such Chinese interlocutors leaders as Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji and Qian Qichen, key players in a talented team pushing the octopus of China, sometimes squirming and screaming, into our internationalist century, while keeping the lead weight of Marxist economic formula from sinking the whole Sino-recovery project.
Now the world has a potent pandemic on its hands. The tension between China and the U.S. is idiotic. President Donald Trump (who never wears a mask) says huffily he is not even talking to Chairman Xi these days. The latter (who can sometimes be seen wearing an actual mask) is almost an exact optic opposite of the noisy, insecure American — the strong, relatively silent type. Note of caution here: in many of China’s issues with neighbors and others, you are told that the Chinese position is invariably wrong or evil or whatever. Please have no tolerance for over-simplification: many quarrels (such as the South China Sea) are complex, issues going back far longer than the U.S. has existed. Also observe that in Asia (as anywhere) few leaders hover as angels.
Against this backdrop, Beijing undergo a thorough foreign policy review, elevate its manner of relating to others, and start deprioritizing old grudges. Adjustments need to be made: Often China seems unduly, neurotically self-centered (mimicking its American rival, alas). If it wants to leave the century of humiliation as far behind as historically possible, then it could stop living in the past, nursing old grievances. No one is in any position to humiliate China anymore; surely it gets this by now? From this position of strength, China should aim higher on the best international practices scale, especially as Washington’s play is sub-par. Beijing’s propaganda apparatus should focus on the positives of international relations; its foreign policy needs to spurn the antiquated look of an imperial power. Slow down the arms buildup: Pointedly building a fleet of seaworthy hospital ships instead of aircraft carriers would offer splendid regional leadership, for example.
So would a reconsideration of long-standing policies for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Two clever Davids flummoxing the Goliath! Together their populations comprise about two percent or so of the mainland’s. Making too much of a big deal – squeezing down too hard on HK and Taiwan – is the sign of an insecure superpower. For these two relatively small annoyances, the Communist Party would risk so much? Listen up, please: There’s a fine line between principle and stubbornness, and just as I sometimes am not sure where that line is in my own affairs, sometimes neither does Beijing. My guess is that more often than not, stubbornness rules.
So yes, it’s sad – two decades into the 21st century it would appear, by virtue of current decisions and priorities, that China may not be cut out for it. Those who obsess about their past risk repeating it, especially if, psychologically, they can never shake it. Only great nations, with great leaders, manage to rise above. So, there is a silver lining in the global-pandemic pause: a bit of time to reflect. We should all use this time wisely, especially Chairman Xi. The PRC has big decisions to make: What to do next while the unsteady American President lusts for re-election — purging enemies, sowing confusion about the pandemic, baiting Beijing, that ever-useful battering ram during presidential campaigns. Maybe this is China’s chance to show special depth?
Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate, LMU’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the author of many books on Asia and China-US relations is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles. The original version of this column appeared earlier this week in the South China Morning Post, the home newspaper for Plate’s commentaries.