CLINICAL PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES – Can our world evolve into a collective mindset incapable of losing it even under extreme pressure? Anyone who tracked with growing alarm the American queen’s forced march through East Asia last week might well have asked themselves – but at what cost? The entourage of the U.S.’ most accomplished domestic politician – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – left behind few patches of peace and security but instead planted new spasms of disarray, doubt and bad feeling.
Even the good people of Taiwan, the putative beneficiaries of Queen’s Pelosi’s march to Taipei, their equanimity challenged and their ears ringing afterwards from overhead missile shots and artillery bursts, had to wonder what if anything had been gained. And in South Korea, the new government pointedly ducked the arrival of her eminence as best it could: its president was “on vacation,” its foreign minister was “traveling”, excuses which left many Koreans broadly smiling. Why annoy the living daylights out of China? Why hand uptight Pyongyang yet another reason to go on a missile bender? There are enough problems in East Asia.
In fairness, Beijing managed to keep most of its cool while not appearing lame in the irritated red eyes of its fiery nationalists, and without appearing resigned to another bully-billboard American interference in its internal affairs. It moved some troops around and fired off this or that projectile precisely calibrated not to hit anyone or anything, but to remind all in the neighborhood who was boss. As if no one knew.
The Xi Jinping government sulked, rather much openly. This is what Beijing, not lusting to launch World War Three, will tend to do when there is little else that can be done. Time and again, disrespected or spurned, it will sulk, deeply and at length. Its neighbors’ job is to wait for the season of sulk to play out, while saying as little as possible, in the presumption that the sulking will end sometime in their lifetime. The sulk now in effect looks to be a big one, though. Measures so far include not answering the phone when foreign contacts call, especially if from America; playing hooky from scheduled bilateral military and maritime meetings; and loudly slamming doors on the way out from international climate, anti-drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and such worthy confabs. In other words, for the time being China will aim to vector a bit more like parochial Pyongyang than globalist China. Leave us alone, western imperialists – we know your sinister type.
But is another big icy sulk in China’s genuine interests? Its leaders are smart enough to know the answer, but mainland politics and pressures cannot be ignored and tend to dumb-down foreign policies. Just as Nancy Pelosi from Taiwan-diaspora-dense San Francisco would not ever have been elected if her platform endorsed unification, China leader Xi Jinping must watch his steps too. The surface looks calm but that’s just the surface. As the late former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill was known to emphasize, “All politics is local.” Later this year more than 2,000 delegates representing some 90,000,000 Communist Party members from all over China’s vast terrain and many provinces are to convene in Beijing to lend their yeas and very rare nays to presumably pre-determined policies and political figures. At about the same time – it’s quite the coincidence — America will face its semi-annual legislative national elections (along with many important local ones). So November should prove a most interesting (and possibly tense) time for Mr. Xi and President Biden – surely for at least one of these giants.
What the Pelosi-Taiwan caper nails down is that the China-U.S. fire-and-ice-capade involve more than a wretched wrestle over a tiny island officially recognized by a mere handful of countries. What we have is less a clash of civilizations than a disconnect in comprehensions. Wonderful recent work out of the China Center in Beijing, a vital nerve center of the Berggruen Institute, with its global headquarters in Los Angeles, strongly suggests something is grinding away at the two giants besides the classic rising-power conflict of national interests, Peloponnesian style or not.
In lucid translation from the original 2021 Chinese language edition, the Institute’s ambitious book ‘Intelligence and Wisdom’ brings together ten experts on technology, artificial intelligence, Confucianism and Daoism in essays designed to prove at least a cut or two above the usual Sino-US commentary. The notable lead essay (How Chinese Philosophers Think About Artificial Intelligence) cries out for questioning conventional dialogues and approaches that don’t seem to get us anywhere. World harmony is obvious not achievable less through concurrence or consensus but requires is to understand that opposites must act in concert. Music composition, for example, requires harmony and transcendence that only superficially seems impossible to achieve (‘punctus contra punctum’), except with an orchestration of independent lines that are blended rather than viewed as inherently disruptive. Concludes Berggruen China Center Director Bing Song in setting out the book’s theme: “Without addressing the root cause of the world’s problems – … ignorance and indulgence in egoist pursuits by human beings – all other efforts would be like ‘drawing water with a bamboo basket’ … in vain.”
Giving the mind of the world a thorough reset before it is lost in new world conflagrations will require listening more to philosophers of harmony, compassion and humanitarian science, rather than buying the sales pitches of the gunrunners of August. Each wanting to have our own way is no way forward. Our future must create a saner global mind through collective mind self-control. We do get that by now, don’t we?
Veteran columnist Tom Plate is Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Asian-American Studies at LMU, a Phi Beta Kappa university, and vice-president of the Pacific Century Institute, both based in Los Angeles. A prior version of this column appeared earlier in the week in the South China Morning Post, to which Plate is a regular contributor.