Phony ideology

August 25, 2023 09:20
Illustration: Reuters

In a publication late last month, I hazarded a guess of a New Normal paradigm in Sino-US relations: ties remain tense, rivlary can be cutthroat, but both refrain from going so extreme as to risk igniting a hot war between them even if the two sides so far have failed to agree on “guardrails” with which to ensure against it - the stake simply is deemed too high.

I stand by the guesswork despite Biden’s sharply worded comments of late. At a fundraiser two weeks ago, he warned that China’s struggles with high unemployment and an aging work force make the country a “ticking time bomb” at the heart of the world economy and a potential threat to other nations. “When bad folks have problems, they do bad things”, he said, and derided Beijing’s Belt & Road initiative as a “debt and noose” recipe for the recipient countries.

This is as rude as it is disparaging in disregard of international and even interpersonal protocol. But Biden will get away with it, as he did when he fired broadsides at China and its top leader before. After all, he is the president of the world’s most powerful and self-righteous country and, in his own words, his blunt statements regarding China are “just not something I’m going to change very much.”

For its part, Beijing is playing an underdog’s game and maneuvering strategic forebearance, interluded with selective counter stunts, in its dealings with a still powerful and often wayward America. This marks a significant difference from the Russians who, in the eyes of the Chinese, behave like a bull charging upon seeing red and pays for it as a rsult, as they are doing right now: quagmired in a war against Ukraine backed by America and its customarily delineated Western allies.

This, combined with the increasingly feel-good mood in Washington, as symbolized by President Biden’s latest loose-canon remarks on China, points to an American thinking that is more apt to let things run their natural courses in its tug of war with China, without having to resort to a real war.

Still, what Biden said on Thursday is worthy of further note in the sense that his “bad folks” nomination is more than a parochialist outburst, or a senile politician’s gaffe, it reflects how Washington and its Western allies seek to confront a menancing alien civilization, the first ever during its global dominance for the past five hundred years – a period which is generally called modern history.

One realls that late Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington saw conflicting interests and perspectives of nations put them on a collision course, a point elucidated in his 1993 magnum opus, The Clash of Civilizations.

Huntington argues that it is self-interest underpinned by hard power that speaks in international politics. He deadpans that “the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence”, adding that “Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do”.

His point was taken in 2019 by Kyron Skinner, then Planning Director at the State Department of the Trump administration, who described America’s competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology”, a “unique challenge” the US hadn’t had before. Skinner, of African-American extraction herself, observed that the Cold War with the former Soviet Union had constituted “a fight within the Western family,” while the contest with China was “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

Skinner’s opinions resonate with those of Edward Said, a Palestinian American scholar who famously coined the term “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the namesake title.

Orientalism, according to Said, signifies the Western prejudice against the non-Western cultures by designating to them the role the West recognizes and approves of. He likens the West’s complacency in this regard to a prerogative to safely depict the image of a lion in Africa, who in books about him cannot “talk back” anyway.

While Said was steeped in his resigned anger over the reign of Orientalism till his death as a hapless Palestinian refugee, by the same metaphor the China lion now has the power to talk back – or rather, the China dragon is roaring out. This only causes dismay interspersed with shock and contempt in America and the rest of the Western world, where political correctness in interlocutions of racial and ethnic equality and redressing nonetheless is all the rage.

Washington seems to be returning to the scene of Huntingtonian description and doubling down on its contest with Beijing in the name of fighting the “bad folks” there “to win the 21st century” (again Biden’s own words) by “the superiority of its ideas or values”.

All this one can not blame the Chinese or the Said-likes for not buying. They’d rather heed Barack Obama when he told the Australians in 2010 as the US president that "If over a billion Chinese citizens have the same living patterns as Australians and Americans do right now, then all of us are in for a very miserable time. The planet just can't sustain it".

Obama was talking about the urgency of fighting climate change, of course, notwithstanding the self-interest air of his proposition being too strong to be missed. He sounds less hyporictic than Biden, to say the least, who is seemingly ignorant of the inherent falsehood of his ideological claims.

The Economist is right in its issue for last week naming America’s economic decoupling with China “phony”. But it perhaps misses the point by not expositing why Washington keeps persuing it. A dogmatic Washington is trying to corrall back into books a roaring dragon with sublimity of labeling it “bad”, to infer from late Said’s analogy.

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The writer is president of Lulu Derivation Data Ltd, a Hong Kong-based online publishing house and think tank specialising in geopolitics