There are worse things than a Covid-19-ravaged world. There is, for instance, the prospect of a Covid-19-ravaged world with the United States and China on a collision course. It is a frightening prospect, considering what open conflict between the two countries would do to the world.
They could just end the party for everyone. That’s why the world held its breath last week when the leaders of the two countries met virtually
, attempting to defuse flashpoints and douse fires by laying down red lines and reiterating past commitments.
The three -and-a -half-hour virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden
was necessary. The trajectory that Sino-US relations were on needed a serious correction.
A lot more work needs to be done to put bilateral relations back on the right path; a single videoconference will not undo years of missteps, nor change the tendency to flog contentious issues to death.
We need to recognise that the conciliatory tone
struck at the virtual summit is an achievement in itself, even though it also demonstrates the dire state of relations. We don’t seem to have come very far since the days of the “Yellow Peril” in the late 19th century, when xenophobia was at its height.
While stereotypes like Chinese arch-villain Fu Manchu
are now considered problematic, anti-China rhetoric – the labelling of the coronavirus the “China virus” – is still being used to fan people’s fears and prejudices, polarise society and fuel hate.
Let’s not forget how easy it is to slide back into McCarthyism. The fearmongering about Chinese spies in lab coats
infiltrating American academia in recent years doesn’t feel so different from the period of political hysteria in the 1950s.
Worryingly, all this tends to generate a negative cycle. The dehumanisation of a racial group will arouse a visceral response, just as the aggression and colonial bullying endured during China’s “century of humiliation” once did.
The Chinese people’s resulting desire to overcome humiliation has since given rise to a narrative of national rejuvenation
, but also fuelled fears of a rising China. As the US pivots to Asia, puts effort into curbing China’s rise, and comes closer to crossing the mother of all red lines – the Taiwan problem
– it has so far succeeded in making the ultimate clash more imminent.
Recall the high-level Alaska talks
in the spring where China’s most senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, shocked the world by abandoning his usual gentle demeanour and striking an uncharacteristically harsh tone.
Turning the tables on the Americans, Yang did the lecturing that time, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken looked displeased. Afterwards, a US official criticised the Chinese, saying China “seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding”.
A show of friendliness, even if it is put on, is important. Sneering at each other
during a global summit like the recent United Nations climate change
conference, COP26, certainly doesn’t help. It’s a bad look, especially when others like Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are able to offer deep thoughts and measured words.
In an extensive interview at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Lee gave the world a bit of a reality check and some perspective. Asked about the state of cross-strait ties, Lee said
, “I don’t think it’s going to war overnight, but this is a situation where you can have a mishap or miscalculation and be in a very delicate situation.”
Quite rightly, Lee also pointed out that all the parties involved had, despite tensions, been saying “the right things”. Lee noted that the US reiterated its commitment to the one-China policy
, and China indicated that it was in no hurry to resolve the cross-strait issue.
Talk is only cheap when you make it so. And world leaders need to bear in mind the wisdom
of Lee’s late father, statesman Lee Kuan Yew: “You lose nothing by being polite.”
The world is in a very delicate situation that demands caution and statesmanship, in the words leaders speak and in the way they engage with each other.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA