This column originally appeared on Dec. 7, 2022, in the South China Morning Post.
CLINICAL PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES – Did you know that, in American-speak, a group of flying Corvids is not called a “flock” but a “murder.” You could look it up! Right now, amid the warm Laguna area of southern California, a region draping languorously over the eastern end of the Pacific Ocean, whip-smart crows are already spreading their wings in anticipation of the rights of spring.
Don’t get them wrong: all ornithological argot aside, they’re not armed to the peak of their beaks with flight plans to dive-bomb homo sapiens barbequing in their backyards. Instead, these tradition-bound, family-oriented, whip-smart, hard-working survivors will soon be scoping out reliable food sources and supply lines with assertive aerial surveillance. Yes, feathering their next can get to be quite a racket, but, on the whole their needs are well accepted by the settler homo sapiens here, so that in this Pacific neighborhood a steady peace prevails between birdkind and mankind.
Not so much within homo-sapiens species: Contrast the ‘cunning’ Chinese in their South China Sea lair; and the ‘intrusive’ Americans with their surrounding military bases and pushy Seventh Fleet out of Camp Smith in Honolulu with those ‘freedom of navigation’ sea-swoops. Who’s the aggressor and who’s the acceptable nester?
On that conundrum, for more than a quarter of a century, I have differed with Americans who insist we should be able to do pretty much what we want. Loathsome, mean-spirited books such as ‘The Coming Collapse of China’ or even otherwise solid books sullied by a carnival title, such as ‘Destined for War’, suggest that America lacks enough common-sense and emotional balance to handle the biggest geopolitical dilemma of the 21st century.
For decades now, the swami of Singapore – professor and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani – has been warning everyone that America was not emotionally or intellectually prepared to process and accept, within bounds, the historic resurfacing of China. How spot-on, tragically, this crusading thinker has been.
My own reporting efforts on Asia and America led me to agree that our policy direction with China had become reactive and wrong. Scant help ever comes from the U.S. media, always wrapping its reporting in the old rags of American exceptionalism and Cold War revanchism. Few American politicians had the acumen or courage to call for course corrections (or even minor recalibrations) in the high-stakes relationship with the rising Asian nuclear superpower.
History will not judge American policy toward China over the last two decades kindly. Intellectual and policy laziness have blocked locking onto this immensely dynamic target with insight. No understanding of China-U.S. relations can hope for credibility and sustainability that lies fallow or stands pat. This is the problem of Beijing v. Washington, and with ‘Socialism with Characteristics’ v. ‘Capitalism with American Exceptionalism’. They are lose-lose, in-your-face formulations.
The necessary need for recalibration came to me in coming across a brash but urgent new book titled ‘Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise.’ This is a volume that everyone that thinks they know enough stuff about China should read, because they don’t.
The author is Dr. Susan Shirk of the University of California in San Diego, and she knows plenty. Famed on the U.S. west coast as one of our most insightful scholars, she earned a large international reputation as a former State Department official with the remit of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia during the Clinton administration This was a brief, forgotten epoch when U.S. China policy was often practical and sometimes close to sensible. It’s a past worthy remembering.
Shirk’s contribution to policy recalibration is in her sophisticated parlaying of deep-thinking scholarship into the twin need for necessary retreats and fresh new directions. This applies to both Beijing and Washington.
She starts up by taking China – especially its current national government – to task for extending the list of problems with binary-boomerang: Beijing’s overreach (its Wolf-Warrior diplomacy, South China Sea bullying, etc., etc.) heats up current tensions or flares up new ones. The West, handicapped by the defects of its implacable, non-magical policy thinking, feels it must react somehow – with sanctions, increased military expenditures, new alliance configurations.
Scholar Shirk traces the origins of China’s derailing of its own previously proclaimed ‘peaceful’ rise back to around 2006-2009, and pointedly calls out the current national government: “The costs to China of Xi’s policies are adding up,” she concludes: “… China will need to find mechanisms to restraint itself. The problem has no obvious solution or simple answer.”
Worse yet, if China is an impossibly big job for one man, does it have the best man in place for a job that cries out politically for the infinite zest of relentless pragmatism?
Yes, China has historically suffered from obnoxious and callus Western meddling and ham-handed stabs at hegemony; but seeking to square geopolitical injustice by over-reaching via punchy rhetoric and pushy policy only incentivizes enemies and creates new doubts and doubters. Yes, America by some metrics may well be a power losing momentum but to lash China’s strategic thinking onto the mast of an allegedly sinking ship is one breathtakingly colossal gamble.
Professor Shirk’s takedown seems more fresh air than cold-war hot air, because her critique of lame U.S. policies is almost as searing, in the process offering a very stern, adult-level warning to both sides to live together to avoid endangering the species altogether.
Why does the Chinese leadership believe it has to dance like wolves on the world stage? Why has the Washington-New York power elite so long resisted the noble challenge of a better U.S. policy for China’s more sensible crows; instead, alas, it only seems capable of watching them like, well, hawks.
LMU Clinical Professor and ‘Giants of Asia’ author Tom Plate is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute. He is the founder of Asia Media International.