CLINICAL PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES — I look back in anger. There’s no other way emotionally to cope with the sense that, ever since the exit of the Clinton administration two decades ago, relations with China have gone from “the good and the bad” to mostly bad.

It’s not that the Clinton crowd had some magic touch – far from it. But, in spite of not having a fully thought-out overall policy towards a re-emerging China, they muddled through well enough and kept the bilateral diplomatic ball bouncing.

They emphasised the positive with China wherever credible, tried to keep their hawkish fits under control, and stuck with promoting trade as the totem of the United States’ capitalist personality. It was practical policy, literally businesslike: granular rather than inspirational, but real in not going beyond what would get you by, day to day.

The “accidental” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 became a sore point in relations but came short of a breaking point. A year later, the US Congress passed trade legislation to ease Beijing’s membership into the World Trade Organization. It was far from heavenly, but appropriately down-to-earth.

If anyone honestly thought the US policy of engagement, as it was known, would lead to some sort of almost-overnight Prague Spring, I never met that person on my reporting trips to Washington.

Oh sure, that puffy thought entered the rhetoric, but the administration’s smartest thinkers – foreign policy stars Winston Lord, Jeff Bader and Anthony Lake – operated without illusion.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher was quietly hawkish but, by his second term, president Bill Clinton, learning on the job, had a new secretary of state and understood that China could not be blocked out as a domestic political problem or human rights issue.

Sure, in a famous TV press conference in Washington in 1997, Clinton bluntly put the thought to the otherwise jovial face of Jiang Zemin that China was “on the wrong side of history”.

But that was primarily for the American audience. In reality, an increasingly shrinking world mandated that everyone should put up with everyone else and make the best of differences, grating though they were. At least China was moving forward in a manner that could perhaps be described as, well, businesslike.

As my good friend and colleague Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean educator and diplomat, puts it perceptibly, America had won the economic argument when Chinese economic reforms proceeded apace, including measures of entrepreneurial decentralisation.

So, what more could the US desire of China? The removal of the Mao picture adorning Tiananmen Square? Why pick away at the Asian power that could no longer be trifled with?

The Chinese people and China’s ruling one-party system had produced a transformation in the nation.

After this, it hardly made any sense to repudiate the Communist Party and propose an imaginary makeover, as it were, into Wall Street Asia, especially after that vile 2007-08 Wall Street catastrophe that triggered global shocks, or the insane 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

The not-infrequent US lectures on how China needs to be a “responsible stakeholder” that followed in the subsequent George W. Bush administration were a bad mix of talking down to the Chinese.

Does anyone believe today that the US-China relationship should not be greatly improved? Look at it this way: my IT colleague at my university insists that whenever you have a computer problem, 80 per cent of the time it can be fixed by a system reboot.

It’s high time to completely reboot. But is this realistic? Leaving aside President Xi Jinping’s problems – and the issue of his leadership style – US President Joe Biden has plenty of his own problems. This November, he faces difficult national midterm elections, for which drooling Republicans cannot wait, as they strike the ideological anti-China posture.

Internationally, Biden, who is not exactly benefiting from uplifting poll numbers, is stuck with an Asian policy that is sure to backfire. A foreign policy that requires the choosing of sides has little future. Asia is not Latin America. Vietnam was certainly not as easy as Guatemala.

Let me briefly lay out the current tense situation in Manila, almost 14,000km (8,700 miles) from Washington, but less than 3,000km (1,900 miles) from Beijing. What do you do?

Side with China and add to your problems with the US, hoping that Washington understands your dilemma and that the quadrupled distance is irrelevant because there are so many US military installations around, notably in Japan and Korea? Probably best to play both sides as best you can, while spending more on military defenses.

And, sure enough, word surfaces that the Philippines is gearing up to buy Indian-Russian shore-based defensive anti-ship cruise missiles. The initial cost of roughly three billion pesos (about US$60 million) is a lot of money for Manila. Filipinos will tell you of many domestic problems that could be ameliorated with such funds.

As it happens, the BrahMos missile system, said to be one of the fastest anti-ship missiles, is getting long looks from other counties. And so, an Asian arms race is in the air – as if there weren’t enough pollutants already threatening our health.

The virtues of deep Chinese wisdom and ready American pragmatism must come together to keep Asia from coming apart. Neither Beijing nor Washington should allow domestic politics to rule this essential bilateral relationship.

Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton had it less wrong than their successors. Their basic instincts were more correct. Let’s bring that saner sensibility back.

LMU clinical professor Tom Plate’s books on China include “In the Middle of China’s Future” and “Yo-Yo Diplomacy.” He is the founder of Asia Media International at LMU. This column, a regularly-appearing fortnightly feature in the South China Morning Post (scmp.cpm), was originally published there on 11 January 2022

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