More than two centuries ago, King George III of England dispatched his emissary to China to call on the imperial court and seek an audience with the emperor. Lord McCartney, the envoy, was to urge Emperor Qianlong to open up China for increase trade.
England was weary of paying for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain with silver, the hard currency of the day. Qianlong looked at the samples of British products McCartney brought along as gifts and declined to open up China. The emperor didn’t think China needed the goods made with western technology that he regarded as mere gadgets.
Qianlong did not live long enough to see that he made a big mistake. Who knows what would have developed had he agreed to open China to free trade. Instead, the British unilaterally imposed their version of open trade by selling their opium grown in India to China for their silver.
Two hundred and some thirty years later, things have changed. The modern day version of China’s emperor, Xi Jinping, didn’t stay home to say no to the British envoy, but personally went to London to say yes to Great Britain. As much reported elsewhere, “yes” came in the form of tens of billion dollars of economic deals including the financing and building of a nuclear power plant.
On their end, the royal family and government leaders in London went all out, rolling out the red carpet and the royal state coach ride for Xi with Queen Elizabeth. I can’t recall any U.S. president accorded a similar honor in recent memory.
This could presage a long-term bilateral friendship but it was not born overnight. For the last 5 years Chinese investments in the U.K. has been increasing annually at a phenomenal rate of 85% per year. The accumulated investment of over $40 billion in U.K. makes up one-third of China’s total investment in Europe.
China’s investment in U.K. is expected to double and double again over the next decade. Obviously, Britain has benefitted significantly by collaborating with China. The prime minister Cameron and Exchequer Osborne clearly understand that the economic future of the bilateral relationship will keep U.K. on the right side of history.
Professor Zhang Weiwei recently visited San Francisco at the invitation of the Committee of 100 to speak at the forum co-organized by The Commonwealth Club. The topic of the forum was how China and the U.S. can avoid conflict. Zhang said to the audience that bilateral trade between China and the U.S. is nine fold larger than China with U.K. Surely the potential benefits of bilateral collaboration would be that much greater than the case with U.K.
If China and U.K. can collaborate, why not the U.S. was more or less his rhetorical posit. Zhang is Director of the Centre for China Development Model Research at Fudan University. As New York Times reported, Zhang is a highly respected thinker in China and the leaders in Beijing follow closely his books analyzing China’s place in the world.
Indeed, a number of highly regarded observers of the international arena have suggested that the U.S. take a page or two from Britain’s book of diplomacy in dealing with China. After all, the U.K. has been playing the Great Game for a long time, even before McCartney’s visit to China. The U.S. has assumed the role of a world power relatively recently, since after WWII, and has much to learn that nuanced diplomacy is not a blunt instrument.
As a strange way of parlaying the positive feelings of Xi’s state visit to Washington mere weeks earlier, the U.S. follow-up response was to dispatch a missile-firing destroyer in South China Seas to within the 12-mile zone of one of the islands being enlarged by China and claimed as its territory. The U.S. position was that they cannot allow militarization of the islands and thus become a threat to freedom of navigation.
China’s position was that dredging and filling the island and erecting lighthouses to aid safe navigation did not constitute militarization. Other neighboring countries have been doing the same long before China began. Furthermore, in the long history that China has staked their ownership of the South China Sea, freedom of navigation has never been an issue.
South China Sea is a huge body of water with plenty of room for unimpeded sailing. China’s islands would become a threat to freedom of navigation only for ships intent on running aground. The U.S. had no legitimate basis for claiming that freedom of navigation was at risk.
In my view, the U.S. has taken unilateral military action acting like the bully in the neighborhood. What was their point in making this provocation?
Some say the U.S. naval exercise was to send a message to the Asian signers of the Transpacific Partnership that they have cast their lot with the right ally and that the American military will be there to protect their security.
On the other hand, America’s ongoing and rapidly spiraling out of control record in the Middle East does not instill anyone with confidence that the U.S. knows what it’s doing.
Shock and awe of Iraq by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld team created the power vacuum that opened the way for the IS radical state. With the possible exception of tiny Tunisia, the Arab Spring under the Obama/Clinton watch has led to millions of refugees on the run with some dying every day.
The present Obama administration has been on the sideline stupefied by the disintegration of Ukraine and has hardly been able to keep the Boko Haram from committing a litany of atrocities in sub-Sahara Africa.
The U.S. is clearly failing in its role as policeman of the world. Yet with unfathomable reasoning, America would compound the mess they are already in by taking the American brand of my-way-or-the-highway exceptionalism to South China Sea where there was no conflict—at least not until Uncle Sam came barging in.
The U.K. has seen the error in following Washington’s lead. Tony Blair, the prime minister who followed George W in invading Iraq, now publicly acknowledges his mistake and apologizes to the people of Britain.
Another clear departure from Washington by London was to ignore the White House urging and to lead a large contingent of developed countries in becoming founding nations of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an idea proposed by China. U.K. opted for the opportunity to make economic investment over paths to conflict.
At the same time as Xi’s visit to U.K., Huawei announced collaboration with the University of Manchester to take graphene from the lab to commercialize into products for mobile applications. Manchester is the recognized world leader in graphene technology and they express delight in working with “a leading global technology brand”—a brand only recently rudely rejected by U.S. Congress.
Graphene is a space age material with as yet untapped potential in civilian and military uses. The mutual trust between China and U.K. is no mere window dressing. Needless to say, such collaboration with any U.S. entity would have been out of the question.
I asked Professor Zhang how China would implement their “one belt, one road” initiative. He said China would select the most reliable partners for the first round of infrastructure investments. Because the projects would be based on the win-win principle, both parties would be equally motivated to make sure the investments succeed. The success of the first series of projects would convince others not to miss out on other projects to follow.
The U.K. obviously understands China’s win-win principle and has positioned to become China’s best partner in the West. Soon it will be obvious to other countries when it’s their turn to choose between being part of China’s economic collaboration or being part of the America’s global chain of military bases.
Uncle Sam struts around the world proselyting the merits of American exceptionalism thinking that he is wearing a full-body armor. The rest of the world just might see that it is only a hospital gown.