TOM PLATE WRITES — Lockdown. Many of us have just been through it; others of us are still stuck in it.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the term usually meant the kind of harsh confinement that befall inmates of a penal institution in the wake of a prison riot. Slight parallels with what we non-felons have endured lately are obvious. Recall the warning from one of the greats: literary immortal E.M. Forster.
In his short story ‘The Machine Stops,’ the English author of ‘A Passage to India’ and other works of art conjures up a world in which humans hunker down in underground bunker-rooms – sustained by food deliveries and a take-charge, in-room communication machine that’s the primary linkage to others. Two-dimensional though the technology was, it was how most people exchanged views; and the one utterly predictable result was limited thinking. Forster’s vision was that confinement and technology renders people into bleary dimensions of the same recycled conversations and ideas. This was published in 1909.
Let’s pull Foster’s prescient mindscape into our present life of internet, video conferencing and globalization. How can we expect the world today to advance via the same old approaches? Global problems, omnipresent, snake in on us like battalions of boa constrictors; as if lacking courage, national leaders, for the most part, bunker in mental lockdown, leaving human-made technology to do the heavy intellectual processing for solutions to problems mainly created by human-made technologies.
Looking for the most conventional, mechanistic answers whenever confronted by daunting new problems can hardly prove the safest passage to the future. If there is a better illustration than ferociously fraught China-U.S. relations, I am unaware of it. Both so-called superpowers are in trouble. Nightly, you witness U.S. street scenes of urban implosion. China, though much harder to assess, may be in deep trouble as well. Who knows? Just the other day, an admirably candid Chinese Premier Li Keqiang blew everyone’s mind when admitting that, despite his country’s internationally applauded economic resurrection, about two of every five in China’s 1.4 billion still have to squeeze by on something like $140 a month! In America, a substantial population remains stuck in poverty no matter which of the two parties are in office.
The Trump and Xi governments display in common a tendency toward exceptional non-magical thinking. With China lately, you sense the propaganda playbook mindlessly re-cycling pre-Deng Xiaoping memes. What else is there to say, right? Analysts hypothesize that China’s leader Xi Jinping aims to deflect doubts about his government’s durability and credibility by such means. But having the propaganda machine continually burn the U.S. image in effigy to fuel nationalism is no more original than a Mao-style jacket. It’s dispiriting to see the revival of this dangerous if laughable ritual.
But why criticize China for unoriginality when the U.S. administration of President Donald J. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offer much the same petty porridge? The latter’s vocabulary is about as fresh as that of iconic Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles. As for Mr. Trump, the craven calculation has been made that another term requires chucking continual cant China’s way. This bilateral deterioration in both tone and substance comes at a time when the two powers should be working especially hard together.
Recently, a most respected American public figure — Retired General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. military’s top tier – was asked in a public interview about China as the new big fearsome ‘enemy’. He said, sighing, that in the post-Cold War epoch America doesn’t have outright enemies – it just has serious problems. The beauty of his formulation is that many problems have solutions, so you can work hard to find and solve them; whereas a state of pure enmity all but predicts eventual conflict. Powell seems the adult in the room trying his best to not to lose his mind amid the madding crowd. Many of us can sympathize with that.
Yes, the irritating issues of both the South China Sea and Taiwan won’t go away. Back to the future? Or a glimpse of the next war? Presumably a People’s Republic of China military move on that little island now would trigger from the desperate Mr. Trump the kind of response that a similarly aggressive move by Vladimir Putin with the Baltics presumably would not. So, if I were Beijing, I’d be leery of assuming that America is militarily handicapped because of domestic turmoil, COVID-19 lockdown and the volatility as well as overall incompetence of the U.S. president, up for a shaky reelection in November. I’d also be leery of assuming that the U.S. Pacific Command, which showcases the Yokosuka-based Seventh Fleet, America’s huge military marker, is asleep, has no mind of its own, and will always promptly respond to political masters back home no matter how lame the direction. “It’s not Europe we fear, it’s America we fear,” a PRC diplomat once told me. With that, he is spot-on, but he needs to keep in mind: America is more than the Washington elite. Peace moves are a better bet for China than war noises.
The suspicion that the U.S. and China are destined for war is defeatist and amoral. In such a war, there would be no winner. Our so-called superpowers would be dumb and dumber to risk going at it, and I don’t know who’d be the dumber of the two – probably a tie. But this is what you get when you embody a mentality of lockdown: ties that bind you to the destiny of the self-damned living in bunkers of limited thinking. It’s a booking for a one-way passage to catastrophe. Passage to a higher level of political civilization is inconceivable via a retreat into debilitating old analogies.
An earlier version of this column has appeared in the South China Morning, based in Hong Kong, China. Author and Professor Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in L.A. and vice president of the Pacific Century Institute.