TOM PLATE WRITES — Marvellously, sharp streaks of sunshine are starting to break through America’s Covid-19 cloud cover, but the fog over US foreign policy seems heavy. It involves India, China and Russia.
Let’s start with India and employ the British poet W.H. Auden’s words – “the gates of hell are always standing wide open”. But, in India’s case, you have to fear that this South Asian giant, with its endless problems, looks more like a revolving door, perhaps with no way out.
Sectors of the Indian population are trapped instead in a kind of hell on Earth. Every day, hundreds of thousands become victims of the pandemic. The Modi government is in denial, as was Donald Trump’s.
Recall that India has been designated in the minds of US policymakers and grand theorists as the historic geopolitical counterweight to big, bad China on the west bank of Asia. But, since independence in 1947, India has seen itself as somehow above grimy side-taking geopolitics.
Even today, it seems in little mood to play the role of new deputy sheriff to replace ever-loyal Australia, which always had a lot more bark than actual bite to offer anyway.
As many on the US East Coast still imagine that Washington remains the centre of the geopolitical universe, it cannot understand why others don’t think this way and don’t want to join in the new global gutter fight of anti-China geopolitics. Such a diplomatic passage for India, from its stance of non-alignment, would be a very tough transformation.
The usual paradigms of international power politics need to be retired to the dustiest corner room of the British Library. After all, Beijing has accepted snatches of capitalism to power its growth, as long as the capitalists do not try to rule over the Communist Party; and Washington, under an amazingly determined new president, is now using – with unabashed relish – invasive tools of state intervention in the economy to refresh development.
So, I don’t think the US understands the new China, or the new India. When you are so self-centred, you become overly self-confident, and you wind up looking old-fashioned.
Declaring a cold war against a government with which you so often publicly disagree not only makes you disagreeable to that government but also to that other part of the world that sees things in the multiplicity of nuances, as opposed to the binary of kindergarten right and wrong.
No doubt China’s treatment and confinement of Uygurs in its far west will merit from history no humanitarian awards, but neither will the Modi government’s racism towards its Muslims. And, blithely enough, Washington proclaims that one country’s policies are evil and the other country’s are … well, it’s a democracy, right?
The argument that Beijing’s Uygur policy amounts to genocide strikes me as more propagandistic in intent than objective in purpose.
In a recent essay in the invaluable Times Literary Supplement in London, the human-rights journalist Caroline Moorehead insists that distinctions in political labelling must be carefully differentiated if they are to have any meaning worth following.
To illustrate, she contrasts and compares the policies of Mussolini to those of other big despots invariably mentioned in the same breath: “[H]is colonial wars were no more brutal than those of the other European countries who preceded him and whose own brutalities are too often forgiven.
“Such comparisons may sound invidious, but the casualties of Mussolini’s reign – about one million totally unpardonable premature deaths – are not in the same league as Mao’s 45-75 million, Stalin’s 40-60 million or Hitler’s 17-20 million.” The word “fascist” is used today “too often and too loosely”, she said.
So is the term “Communist totalitarianism”, thrown around like one-size-fits-all; but perhaps it fits none, in reality. Russia is neither totalitarian nor communist right now; what it is, though, is a mess – and a dangerous one.
Yet Washington is waging a cold war against both Moscow and Beijing. What a brilliant strategy: get two formidable nuclear powers to unite against you, instead of trying to divide them against each other. But not to worry, the US will get India to pitch in on its side.
Consensual hallucination – as in “boss think” and groupthink – perhaps best describes the thinking now. Things are either evil or not. Nations are either bad or good. The clear-sighted Winston Churchill once cut a deal with Joseph Stalin. Having Russia move closer to China today is no sign of a policy triumph; maybe a choice needs to be made, sooner rather than later.
Perhaps all the wolf-warrior watchers of the West should lend their ears elsewhere and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and hope that my hunch that the People’s Republic will not tear across Taiwan is right. I think the leaders of China are too smart for that.
Clinical Professor Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University‘s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice-president