By Tom Plate
LOS ANGELES ― Don’t get me wrong. Abject kowtowing is no way to forge an honest and productive relationship with anyone, including the People’s Republic of China. We have differences with Beijing ― and Beijing with us. Covering them up or ignoring them will allow them to fester. Relatively minor issues can become major when both sides act as if serious problems don’t exist.
The Chinese are unhappy with the U.S. because they view us as having raised the military stakes in the Pacific region, parts of which they regard as more or less their backyard. For its part, the U.S. government is unhappy for a host of reasons, including (1) human rights in China (so what’s new?) and (2) China’s treatment of Tibet (or so Washington complains ― but it’s not going to do anything about Tibet and never will) and (3) intellectual property theft on the mainland (okay, this does need work) and (4) obstruction of collective action on Syria (but Moscow is more to blame than Beijing).
Solving such difficult issues may take almost forever. Both sides have their positions and they are well staked out. Few are quickly or easily resolvable. Probably time will vitiate some of them, but perhaps intensify others. Only nationalistic partisans on either side can honestly believe that the other is wholly wrong and they are wholly right.
So how should the bilateral relationship then proceed? The answer is: cautiously but honestly, because so much is at stake; but never much publicly. And so here we raise the troubling case of this week’s official visit of China’s Vice President Xi Jinping.
This career Communist Party ladder-climber man looks to be the next top leader of China ― successor to incumbent President Hu Jintao ― and was invited to the Oval Office by President Obama in part as a return favor for the gracious treatment accorded Vice President Joseph Biden during his August swing through China.
Alas, it is an American presidential election season so the rest of the world had better watch out! That even includes China, to whom we owe via their purchase of our Treasury bills something not too far from, it sometimes seems, the gross national product of the rest of the universe.
It was during a “toast” at a State Department lunch this week that Xi got his not-so-funny “roast” ― and from Biden of all people. It wasn’t that the issues raised were inappropriate. It was that they were raised so publicly, and so ungraciously, during this official event.
China’s leaders are characteristically as hard as rocks of course and Xi easily kept a stone face throughout. But it was difficult not to feel that the U.S. administration’s public edginess was for domestic political effect. With the showdown election only a bunch of months away, the Obama administration had to show ― but whom exactly? ― that it could be tough on China.
So who? The Republicans. That’s not going to work. Independent voters? It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s truly anti-China voting for a Democratic president because he appears during re-election season to be tough on China.
So who’s the Obama administration fooling?
But maybe they’re not fooling? Maybe they think it’s appropriately muscular of them to have public airings of differences with China ― so public that it makes the front pages of the New York Times and the Financial Times, two leading English-language newspapers in the West?
China was giving as well as taking. Xi himself lobbed a few tart innuendoes Obama’s way in response to written questions submitted by the Washington Post. So one has to laugh: Has China’s succession process forcing Xi to “run” too? Does he have to play the tough guy role for constituencies back home?
This is all silly and unnecessary stuff indeed. Both superpowers are behaving badly. They should be confining their differences to the intense private sessions provided amid the routine of their ongoing bilateral discourse; but in public almost exclusively emphasize areas of agreement or at least commonality.
The stability of the international political system depends on a confident and civil relationship between Beijing and Washington. Both need to keep in mind the crucial difference between the short and the long run. Today’s hot differences may over time cool to unimportance. But if over the course of time the China-America relationship truly deteriorates and heads the way of some kind of new Cold War, the consequences will be serious and harmful for the entire planet. Loose political lips can create serious problems of their own. Who in the world needs that?
Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Asia Media (lmu.edu/asiamedia). Reach him at email@example.com.