A woman looks at a Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft flying over Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest points to Taiwan, on August 5. Photo: Reuters
Tom Plate
Tom Plate

Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip highlights need to reset global thinking

  • The US House speaker’s visit to Taiwan left many wondering what had been gained, with China’s neighbours resigned to Beijing indulging in a protracted sulk
  • Instead of viewing US-China conflict as a clash of civilisations, it might be more useful to be attuned to philosophers of harmony and compassion
Can our world develop a collective mindset that allows it to stay calm even under extreme pressure? Anyone who tracked with growing alarm US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip through East Asia last week might well have asked themselves: but at what cost? The entourage of the US’ most accomplished domestic politician left behind few patches of peace and security and instead scattered seeds of disarray and doubt.
Even the good people of Taiwan, the putative beneficiaries of Pelosi’s march to Taipei, with their ears ringing from missiles overhead, had to wonder what, if anything, had been gained.
In South Korea, the new government pointedly ducked Pelosi’s arrival as best it could: the country’s president was “on vacation” and its foreign minister was “travelling”, excuses which left many Koreans relieved. Why annoy China? Why hand North Korea yet another reason to go on a missile bender? There are enough problems in East Asia.
In fairness, Beijing managed to mostly keep its cool without disappointing its fiery nationalists or appearing resigned to yet more 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 neighbourhood who was boss. As if no one knew.
What the Xi Jinping government did was sulk, quite openly. This is what Beijing, not lusting to launch World War III, tends to do when there is little else that can be done. Its neighbours’ job is to wait for the sulk to play out, while saying as little as possible.
The sulk now in effect looks to be a big one, though. Measures so far include not answering the phone when foreign counterparts call, especially if from the United States; playing hooky from scheduled bilateral meetings; and backing out of cooperation on climate change, anti-drug trafficking and illegal immigration.

In other words, for the time being Beijing will behave a bit more like parochial Pyongyang than globalist China.

US takes a dangerous step towards strategic clarity over Taiwan

But is another big sulk in China’s genuine interests? Its leaders are smart enough to know the answer, but domestic pressures cannot be ignored and tend to dumb-down foreign policies. Just as Pelosi would never have been elected to represent the Taiwan-diaspora-dense San Francisco if her platform endorsed unification, Chinese President Xi Jinping must watch his step too. As the late former US House speaker Tip O’Neill was known to emphasise, “all politics is local”.

Later this year, more than 2,000 delegates representing over 90 million Communist Party members from all over China’s vast terrain are to convene in Beijing to lend their yeas and very rare nays to presumably predetermined policies. At about the same time, the US 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 Xi and US President Joe Biden.
What Pelosi’s Taiwan caper nails down is that the China-US contest involves more than a wrestle over a tiny island officially recognised by a mere handful of countries. What we have is less a clash of civilisations than a disconnect in comprehension. Recent work from the China Centre in Beijing of the Los Angeles-headquartered Berggruen Institute suggests something is grinding away at the two giants besides the classic rising-power conflict of national interests, Peloponnesian-style or not.

Translated from the original 2021 Chinese language edition, the institute’s book Intelligence and Wisdom brings together 10 experts on technology, artificial intelligence, Confucianism and Daoism in essays that go beyond the usual Sino-US commentary. The notable lead essay, “How Chinese philosophers think about artificial intelligence”, makes the case for questioning conventional dialogues and approaches that don’t seem to get us anywhere.

World harmony is achievable only through an understanding that opposites must act in concert. Music composition, for example, requires harmony that superficially seems impossible to achieve (punctus contra punctum), yet can be done by blending independent musical lines rather than viewing them as inherently disruptive.

To mend Sino-US relations, nothing can beat face-to-face interaction

As Bing Song, director of the Berggruen China Centre, argues, “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 global thinking a thorough reset before it is lost in new world conflagrations will require listening more to philosophers of harmony and compassion, rather than buying the sales pitches of the gunrunners of August. Each wanting to have our own way is no way forward. We must create a saner global mind through collective 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