TOM PLATE WRITES — The filling of key policy positions in the incoming Biden administration proceeds apace. But so far, none of the announced or expected top-level appointees proffer particular savvy or expertise about Beijing. The designated Biden secretary of state is Antony Blinken, whose dedicated career competence and sensible style will prove refreshing and welcome, and might someday even blur memories in foreign capitals of primeval predecessor Mike Pompeo. But as close as this professional diplomat is to Biden – and this closeness is an enormous asset — Blinken has no pretensions to be some Sino-superman in a China cape.
On the Beijing remit, he will need all the help he can get — and as soon as he can get it. Especially at the start, America’s top diplomat will find himself pulled in many different international directions. No human no matter how skilled has time for everything all at once. China, representing 18% of global population and 32% of Asia’s, is a whale of a challenge. The country’s ambitious Communist Party takes few naps; very serious men are in charge. Right off, the incoming administration would help itself greatly by designating a Special Super-Coordinator for the PRC or even gin up a new position of China Czar. This would charge some capable professional figure in the American government with systematically sorting out the maddening bilateral matrix, with all its military, diplomatic, economic — and human-rights issues — that can spin the relationship into vicious infinite regress. Ideally, the China Czar would be neither a ‘panda hugger’ nor a panda strangler. She or he certainly should be fluent in Mandarin and, preferably, have served as a Foreign Serviceerton officer on the mainland.
To get the czar-ball rolling, a high-ranking career official should be known to Blinken. American intelligence expert Greg Treverton, whose extensive career includes service as chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Obama administration, imagines a scenario in which the China coordinator is situated near the secretary of state in a re-energized State Department that had been suffocated by President Trump and chief enforcer Pompeo. As Treverton put it to me: “One easy way would be to make ‘P’ dual-hatted as the China coordinator. Of course, being located in State would have some downsides but the fate of most rootless czars is that they become, as I say, czardines.” FYI: ‘P’ is inner-sanctum lingo in Washington for the high-ranking position of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.
Reconstruction will also be needed of the conceptual sort: Biden’s people will not be able to get by without the guiding leverage of a big new idea for both the persuasion of domestic opinion and stabilization of policy. China too large and successful to lean on old analogies such as a “new” Cold War based on the containment concept that was sort of brilliant in 1946 but which has aged like everything else. For one thing, America does not have the kind of wealth advantage over China that it had over the former Soviet Union to be able to blithely outspend on weapons like some competitive cookie monster. To get into that sort of skies-the-limit game is to run the risk that America might wind up being outspent by China.
Serious issues of ethical and moral legitimacy face these two giant powers should they wind up running the bilateral relationship in grandpa’s Cold War terms. Each grinds long with domestic problems that admittedly cannot be solved solely with money, but certainly cannot be cut down to size without a great deal of it. Some problems, such as global warming and health, face all nations; some are special to them. The just-published book Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise (by Stanford University Professor Scott Rozelle and education researcher-writer Natalie Johnson) analyze deep systemic faults in China’s development that, without amelioration, could plummet China into skydive collapse. As the citizen of a country with a strikingly comparable issue – urban versus rural divide — I must admit the ‘Invisible-China’ thesis struck home, after being so dramatized by last month’s U.S. national election.
It’s impossible to see how regional and global stability can be improved with China and the U.S.at each other’s throats. Systemic state-sponsored stereotyping of each other will hardly pave the road to de-tensioning. Mutual demonization has no place in China-US diplomacy and is an evil that will produce nothing good. Patriotism without modulation on both sides could trigger a chain of events that might elude the control of their manipulators. The drift to war can only be checked by steely willpower and absolute planet-caring.
It is insane to believe peace and stability can be achieved by demonizing. Alas, from the deeply convinced perspective of many in the U.S., especially in its foreign-policy, military and news media sectors, whenever an issue arises with Beijing, China is the guilty party no matter what anyone says. End of story. What’s the point in trying to negotiate anything with Beijing? In fact, strategically speaking, let’s do to the Communists in China precisely what we did to the Soviet Communists in Russia: Militarize ourselves to the teeth. What other option is there?
And all that the rest of the world needs to do is to hold on for dear life and succumb to an extended subjugation of a nuclear-tinged duel between two geopolitical dinosaurs. Presumably the incoming U.S. government will want to do better than this. And, for its part, the Xi government needs to initiate its own recalibration of the bitter bilateral and start meeting the West halfway if it desires to render its ‘peace-loving’ self-branding credible to anyone outside of the Communist Party of China.
Clinical Professor Tom Plate is founder of Asia Media International at Loyola Marymount University, in the Asian and Asian American Studies Department. He is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute and the author of 13 books. An earlier version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post.