[The author of this op-ed is a career U.S. military officer writing under the pen name Ehr Kwong. -Eds.]
The New York Times’ newest Beijing correspondent, Jane Perlez, has wasted no time in getting her feet wet stirring up the waters of international disharmony. Her article, “Chinese Insider Offers Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions,” covers the publication of a joint report by two well-respected scholars of Sino-American relations, Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal. The report, titled “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” offers both a frank discussion of this distrust as well as suggestions for mitigating and managing it.
The Times errs by emphasizing the former and ignoring the latter. Readers are told that “both countries see deep dangers and threatening motivations in the policies of the other,” but are not privy to the report’s stated goal: “To enable each leadership to better fathom how the other thinks—and therefore to devise more effective ways to build strategic trust.” We are left with a feeling of insurmountable distrust by the Times article when the report itself argues just the opposite, that “strategic distrust is very difficult but not impossible to address meaningfully.”
Ms. Perlez and/or her editor have fallen prey to the temptation of newspapers to attitudinize–in this case coyly playing up the antagonism where the real picture is vastly more complex–presumably because it sells papers (or whatever papers are actually selling these days). I suspect this temptation is particularly strong regarding China, one of several places left in the world which, if we’re being honest, is still shrouded in myth and mystery.
This means that when it comes to China, otherwise knowledgeable people tend to fixate on those events which are least likely to occur. To educated but non-specialist readers, such ruminations seem ominous and perhaps plausible, although they may get the feeling they’re not being told the whole story.
Examples of unlikely China events include: Collapsing economically, simply disintegrating, grabbing the South China Sea, gobbling up Siberia, charming the resources off Central Asia, gettin’ hegemonic on South and Southeast Asia, Finlandizing Vietnam, taking over Taiwan while nobody’s watching (the dreaded “fait accompli”), swallowing up North Korea, hatching plans to dominate East Asia (or all Asia, or the Asia-Pacific, or the whole world), and most ludicrously of all conquering the moon. Perhaps with the lunar body firmly in its grasp, Beijing will finally be able to dispel these rumors at their source.
To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with discussing these topics, only it’s essential to keep them in perspective. I would submit that none of these black swans explains a significant aspect of China. They’re all honk and flap, but in the end signify nothing.
We might collectively call them the “China Goes Crazy Theory,” a mutant strain of Chicken Littleism. Beijing knows it can’t survive on moon dust and hegemony. It must deliver economic development to maintain social stability, and that means cooperating and trading, not stirring up anti-China sentiment pursuing wild adventures.
The Times’ article does deserve some credit for covering expert opinion on a subject prone to exaggeration, but Sino-American strategic distrust is not a new phenomenon and is in no way deserving of the alarm that a “rare insider glimpse” suggests. There’s nothing particularly surprising in Lieberthal’s and Wang’s report. It is, however, highly encouraging that two authoritative international scholars have produced a document that will no doubt prove quite useful to those decision makers charged with managing U.S.-China relations.
Of course, the report offers no easy answers, namely because there are none. We must approach Sino-U.S. relations with our eyes open, but we must keep our hearts and minds open as well. There is a school of thought that believes a U.S. war with China is inevitable. Of course, there is some reason to believe this. But there is at least as much reason to believe that war is avoidable. It does us little good to harden our hearts in the certainty that Armageddon is just around the corner while there is still a world of possibility open to us.
And this is where we must free our minds. The future will not be like the past. It may be better, it may be worse, but it will be different.
The U.S. cannot be all-powerful forever. China, for its part, will not become all-powerful. Nations such as India, Brazil and Indonesia (among others) will become powerful as well. If we wish the future to be better, we must actively strengthen our international system, beginning with the UN, such that it is able to maintain political and economic development for the next generation. Nothing is forever, and it is megalomaniacal to believe that we can install a final, perfect world system. But with hard work and a little faith, we can continue to progress.