Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

A Balanced and Realistic Look at China from Singapore

A wise article indeed. And in line with my belief (thanks Pa) that the way forward is one of synergy and friendship between the US and China. We really do not need more us-and-thems. It is pragmatic to be cautious, but if this caution is properly understood by both sides, then this caution can be respected. The result – harmony.

Quotable Quotes – “Please tell the American people that everyone, especially Asia, will greatly benefit if America is able to get its relationship with rising China right. But if it doesn’t, the result will be
geopolitical instability and serious trouble for everyone.” Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew

A Balanced and Realistic Look at China from Singapore
Tom Plate (Pacific Perspectives)
Source – Khaleej Times 3 November 2009

Putting US foreign policy into a proper strategic orientation in order to be useful in the 21st century was never going to be a self-evident process. Tough priorities would have to be sorted out. Try to do everything and little gets done.

Choose the wrong goals and frustration results. Wise foreign policy requires deep reflection of the fundamentals. Fifteen years ago, I faced a similar sorting-out problem — though, of course, on a dramatically tinier scale! That was when this foreign-policy column was born — hatched on the op-ed pages of The Los Angeles Times.

Choosing to concentrate on America’s relationship with Asia from Los Angeles was a major first step in editorial prioritisation (leave Europe and so on to the East Coast news media, etc.). But even that narrowing did not eliminate hard choices. What would be the column’s priorities regarding the vastness of Asia? What would be its purposes?  How might it (somehow) contribute to public good?

Back then, stumbling around in an un-chartered forest of options, I looked around for advice. I spoke to a lot of smart people. One of them was Lee Kuan Yew, then five years past his epochal three-decade run as Prime Minister of modern Singapore.

I asked him, in his office on the government’s gorgeous Istana grounds, what was the wisest single message this column could convey to the American reader? Not hesitating, Singapore’s internationally-known political sage looked at me straight and said: Please tell the American people that everyone, especially Asia, will greatly benefit if America is able to get its relationship with rising China right. But if it doesn’t, the result will be
geopolitical instability and serious trouble for everyone.

Perhaps today such advice seems almost conventional wisdom. But remember that, back then, America and China were still locked in elemental frigidity. No US President would even dare to visit China in the years that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square shock. It got ridiculous: In 1997, a storm erupted over a simple deal that would permit China’s merchant ships to lease a dock in Long Beach, California. One of my first columns defended it: “The best advice is the simplest: Keep your powder dry. But keep a welcoming
hand outstretched.”

That view touched off controversy, as many of those nineties’ columns on China did. Some readers accused me of actually being Communist. One Californian Congressman published a letter to The Los Angeles Times stating that my views parroted the Beijing line. But wise heads encouraged me to stay the sensible course despite everything. One was Lee Kuan Yew, who would offer an occasional encouraging message.

Once noting my column’s worries about anti-China sentiment, the then-Senior Minister sent a fax from Singapore specifically about the port column: “Your ‘Protect Your Back and Extend a Hand’ is balanced and realistic. It is a necessary antidote to the hysteria building up among the 
anti-China groups.”

Lee, even now at 86, doesn’t stop offering the world his advice, thankfully. His latest effort to set the global table came in Washington recently while receiving the first Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by the US-Asean Business Council.

His acceptance speech covered a wide expanse of policy territory, but his China remarks remained true to what he has been advocating for decades — and to what he told me at Istana in 1997.

“China,” he said, “faces enormous problems. No one knows their seriousness better than China’s own leaders….[Thankfully], successive American Presidents have moved relations with China closer toward the centre of  US policies….US policy kept a steady course to increase multinational trade, investments and mutual prosperity….Sino-US relations are both cooperative and competitive.

Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not….Unlike US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no bitter, irreconcilable ideological conflict between the US and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market….”

For Lee, now as then, a sensible China would not threaten America: “[The Chinese] will avoid any action that will sour relations with the US To challenge a stronger and technologically superior power like the US will abort their ‘peaceful rise’.”

What’s even more interesting about such a perspective is how many key Chinese leaders agree with it. This week, for example, China’s Central Military Commission finally agreed to upgrade the level of military exchanges between Beijing and Washington.

A number of us, perhaps most notably and creditably Admiral Timothy Keating, former head of the US Command in Hawaii (who just passed the torch to Admiral Robert F. Willard), have been urging Beijing to work harder to improve instant communications at high military levels.

For some time those pleas seemed to be falling on deaf ears.  Now Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Caihou seems to be paying attention. A quick trip to Washington for this purpose was suddenly announced. Lee Kuan Yew is not the only voice that makes such points. But he continues to play a valuable role. This deserves to be properly noted.

Veteran American journalist and former UCLA professor Tom Plate is writing a series of books on major Asian figures

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Filed under: International Relations, Khaleej Times, Politics, Singapore, Strategy

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