If you find yourself peeved by the hawkish tone of most US commentaries about China’s rise, you should blame East Coast Americans who dominate the conversation about ties between the two major powers.
In his new book Yo-Yo Diplomacy, the prominent US columnist Tom Plate says there is a clear cleavage in the way China watchers in the US West Coast and those on its East Coast think about the threat posed by Beijing.
On the East Coast, China is viewed with a “gloomy” lens, while commentators on the opposite end of the country embrace a “sunny politics of possibility regarding China and Asia”, writes Plate.
The 73-year-old, a stalwart commentator on Asia-Pacific issues in the South China Morning Post, says there is no doubt he views China with a “West Coast mentality”.
“It honours the optimistic, persistently doubts the worst-case scenario, believes in our common humanity, Chinese or Caucasian,” Plate writes in the book’s introduction.
“On the US West Coast, there are more Asians than anywhere else outside of Asia. More and more, from all over Asia – and nowadays especially from the mainland they come and settle,” Plate, who lives in Los Angeles, writes.
“By psychology if not by mileage, we are equidistant between Beijing and Washington.”
On the other hand, in the east, the nation’s capital of Washington“is maybe the meanest political town in a first-world country, fully in the feral class of a Seoul or Paris or other notably mean-spirited capital cities,” Plate writes.
Yo-Yo Diplomacy’s release comes amid rising concern on whether the current North Korean missile crisis will inadvertently trigger an armed conflict between the US and Pyongyang’s closest ally China.
The book chronicles the veteran columnist’s take on why, despite the ebbs and flows of China-US relations, the two juggernauts are unlikely to ever engage in open warfare that would involve invading each other’s sovereign territory.
These arguments are laid out in detail in the second half of the book, a republication of 50 of Plate’s fortnightly columns in the Post from June 2015 to April this year.
One recurring theme is the idea that the world can accommodate two superpowers in China and the US at the same time, without seeing conflict.
Plate attributes the genesis of this “theory of two suns” to the former Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo and Kishore Mahbubani, another top former diplomat from the Lion City.
“This is a marvellous metaphor for the psychotic geopolitical rumblings of our time. Until we are sure of the finalised positions of the two suns in relation to one another, no one is entirely sure of where they stand, or how they are to move.” He adds: “The two suns themselves are not sure of where they will stand in relation to each other as events are so much in motion.”
Plate writes that the Post’s publication “in whole” of each of his commentaries – some which delved into topics such as Hong Kong’s missing booksellers and Beijing’s occasional hard-nosed approach to diplomacy – showcased how the newspaper’s “calibre of collegial overview” compared with those of leading mastheads in the West.
“Criticisms of changes on the paper’s ideological tonality and allegations of the loss of total journalistic objectivity [which exists nowhere] are neither surprising nor upsetting,” Plate writes in remarks about the flak the Post has come under following its takeover by the Chinese technology giant Alibaba Group in 2015. “But they may be misconceived. Newspapers that do not change will surely die.”