Common sense and patience needed as US election fever fans Americans' fears about China

Tom Plate warns against believing all the tough talk about China as the US presidential race heats up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 6:18pm

The US presidential election circus is getting started, and so is the China debate. The first stop of many on the presidential debate trail produced smashing TV ratings. Like much of the world, Americans are worried about where the US is headed and what quality of person should lead it. In 15 months' time, our decision will be foisted on the world, and everyone will have to live with it.

One direction to which our debate has not yet turned is the China-relations question. The only candidate who seemed to make much of it last week was bombastic billionaire businessman Donald Trump. He muttered about how "we lose to China … we don't beat China in trade", whatever that might mean. (What, should the US manufacture more cheap toys?)

But what is sure to surface over the long campaign is that many Americans worry about the Sino-US relationship, are either puzzled or troubled about China, or are convinced that they know all the answers.

The know-it-all constituency believes it has China all figured out: it claims that, despite Beijing's charm offensives and rollicking pandas, Beijing is up to no good. This paranoid perspective permits the imagining of a destructive Red conspiracy behind every move China makes, and everything it says and might dream of.

Are the paranoids for real? Many make you worry and want to find a bomb shelter; but one exception is veteran defence official and analyst Michael Pillsbury, who is very smart, knows his China stuff and worked for years at the think tank Rand Corporation. His new book, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, offers ominous views on "evil" China that cannot be ignored, and out-thumps Trump and others in the "we're losing to China" department.

Pillsbury is absolutely sold on the idea that America is naive to believe China is aiming for anything other than to emerge as the biggest elephant in the jungle: the globe's sole superpower. Economic espionage and deceptive diplomacy will be constant. While deferring actual military confrontation for the time being, China's hawks flutter and strut behind the takeover strategy.

What should be the response of the American ba (a multi-layered Chinese term that Pillsbury believes captures the Chinese view of America, and which he takes to mean "tyrant")? Start by creating a credible and cohesive anti-China coalition of those unwilling to kowtow, and at every step confront Beijing, it being one canny competitor and no cuddly panda.

Pillsbury warns: "Western elites and opinion shapers provide the public with rose-coloured glasses when it comes to looking at China. That, of course, is just as the Chinese have planned it."

If there is any comfort in the Pillsbury perspective, it's that China's new unipolar world order could well take 100 years to realise. That's a long stretch of tick-tock even by a Chinese clock. Our best multinational corporations are lucky to keep even five-year plans in one piece.

Pillsbury and others like him are entitled to their conspiracy view, but common sense suggests that China's policy, like America's, is more a patchwork of daily challenges to ever-changing pressures than some master plan hatched in some secret basement room of the Central Party School.

So the rest of us compose our minds from the hard work of more patient China evaluators. One is Dr Charles Wolf Jnr, who for many decades has starred as Rand's senior economist. He views China much like the US: as a mixed bag of the smart and the dumb, the good and the bad, the old and the new. But, rather than a conspiracy theory, he promotes social-science methodology.

Wolf's most recent book, Puzzles, Paradoxes and Controversies, and the Global Economy, offers sane deductions and reasoned correctives for geopolitical emotional insecurity. At the outset, he wearily reminds us that presidential candidates will "talk tough" about China but "toughness is not a policy". For panicky types, he counsels patience, sometimes inspirationally abandoning the temptation to power-point a point by welcoming in the warming glow of historical perspective.

Cleverly, Mao's droll reservation about the limitations of anti-corruption campaigns - "it's hard to squeeze out all the toothpaste from the tube" - enlivens his view that too much anti-corruption activity can cause as much trouble as too much corruption. Anti-China nagging about the "undervalued renminbi" lacks intellectual fairness by ignoring the severe structural asymmetry between the world's two biggest economies.

As for Beijing's blustery plunge into the foreign aid game (a favourite subject of alarmist Western media), Wolf predicts for China considerable frustration. Foreign aid recipients, Beijing will find, tend to have amazingly short memories about what they promised in return for the aid, as the US has found to its melancholy.

The Rand Corporation, often dubbed little more than a paid-in-full policy-scout team for the money-bags Pentagon, is increasingly working the peace side of the all-important Sino-US relationship. But it takes two to play this good and noble game.

For starters, Beijing could embrace a carefully framed Rand proposal, recently tendered confidentially to high-level Chinese officialdom, of methodologies for the serial expanding of overlapping mutual national interests. This might read like a mouthful, but the idea is clear enough - and might even prove a game changer. Who knows unless it is tried?

Columnist Tom Plate, author of In the Middle of China's Future, is distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles