TOM PLATE WRITES — The truth about the swelling importance of the People’s Republic of China in the Asia-Pacific is that without America’s corresponding help, unintended as it was of course, the reversal of position would not have happened as quickly.
Perhaps it all began in 1997, with the collapse of the currency of Thailand, when Washington did not come to prompt rescue of an Asian nation that had been loyal to its Cold War campaign against communism, leaving the cleanup to the cold-hearted scholasticism of such funding institutions as the International Monetary Fund, whose dogmatism added so much to the region’s suffering; while scuppering cash-rich Tokyo’s bid to charter a stabilizing regional bank.
And then came unforgettable 2008: While Beijing was orchestrating a largely gorgeous Olympics, Washington looked away while Wall Street’s own ‘wolf warriors’ went to town on the world and plunged it into wicked financial darkness.
An alert Asia was taking this all in.
The charge sheet above is long enough, but I almost forgot one other very big thing: the general insolence of the Trump Presidency and, specifically, the policy primitivity of the trade war with China. For the foreseeable future, this idiocy will stand out in history as dumb and dumber.
If the U.S. now concludes it has a China problem in Asia, might it not in part be of its own making? Why blame Beijing for not wanting to ignore a vacuum?
An American journalist reporting on Asia continuously since 1996 cannot possibly be asked to view all this impassibly. The pain cuts too deep. The lost possibilities are too haunting. The America he loves is seen as if sleeping through history. Inevitably it gets personal: Instead of being able to observe America at its best – and when at its best, America can be awesome and exemplary, I insist – I am pressed against the cold glass pane of a yawning black hole — a brain drain in the Asia-Pacific region of America’s international policy. And I am not sure whether a ladder of escape exists to permit a timely scampering back to a rebalanced policy.
This is not to gainsay in any way the achievements of China. Almost beyond belief, some of them, they are impressive, whether from its jaunty Belt and Road extravaganza to its wise ongoing investment in international-institution diplomacy. True, the Chinese pivot to Asia and the world has not been far less than purely angelic! The line between visionary largesse and pure hungry self-interest is not always ease to discern. And like the U.S. in Europe last century, China, though largely a success, will suffer its share of stumbles as its moves out into the global jungle economically. Elephants can be very clumsy and highly intelligent at the same time.
But the basic charted direction is anything but idiotic. As my friend and colleague Bill Overholt, surely one of the world’s leading analysts of Asia-U.S. relations, put it last week in a Zoom conference (‘Myth and Realities in Sino-American Relations’) at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies: “Engagement with China is the biggest single reason that the world has experienced half a century of big power peace and the most extraordinary increase in prosperity in global history.”
The most visible tragic dimension is Beijing’s demonstrative military buildup. And why? Especially after having observed the fall of the communist Soviet Union, laden down with little else to show off to the world besides its monstrous military-industrial complex, China then proposes to proceed on a similar course of down-the-drain resource commitment?
No doubt the American superpower game plan found resonance in a modern China flavored by such heartwarming bon mots as Mao’s “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” More than 75 years after total triumph in the Pacific, the arms of the America’s military octopus still drape over Asia as if holding on desperately for sheer relevance: Having won, let us not sensibly re-turn home, but stay put as if another major war is just around the bend (and who could the big enemy possibly be?).
But has the American effort to balance China had the unintended consequence of helping Beijing to conjure up one big ping-pong table as the field of play on which all shots from the U.S. side require an equally fierce return?
And so, along with the exit of Trump and the entrance of Joseph Biden, now is the time for America to try to get Asia right. Immediate steps are plain for all to see. Rebuild the State Department, shunted and starved for funds and White House warmth these past years. Make great appointments at key levels. Yes, who becomes Biden’s secretary of state is crucial (goodbye Secretary Mike Pompeo); but so is who becomes assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (perhaps widely liked veteran diplomat Kathleen Stephens, chair of the board of the Korea Society?). Re-engage multilaterally, but without apology for the disarray of the past four years; people understand a political pamdemic.
But for all this, a grand re-conceptualization is needed: PRC as permanent bad-guy enemy? Or China as contributor (though not without tears from time to time) to global peace, prosperity and stability? We note that over the weekend that, in increasingly pivotal Singapore, which was a driving force for the confab, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership came closer to realization. Fifteen governments across the sea-span of the Asia-Pacific (representing about three-tenths of the world’s wealth/population) agreed to take the pact back home for approval. RCEP includes Australia, China Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand, along with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India took a pass. But name one other big nation that was not involved. One guess only.
Clinical Professor Tom Plate is founder of Asia Media International at Loyola Marymount University, where he is tenured to the Asian and Asian American Studies Department. He is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute. The original version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post.