Candid quarreling brings conciliation

Candid quarreling brings conciliation

North Korea has brought the United States and China closer together, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Los Angeles --- Call it what you will. In the red-baiting McCarthy era, to be sure, they probably would have labeled it as some sort of sinister Fifth Column operating on behalf of Beijing behind America's lines.

They themselves call their U.S.-based organization, rather plainly, not mentioning China, "The Committee of 100" -- though this obviously distinguished group, which has been around for almost a century now, sports many more members nationwide than that.

For myself, I simply think of it as America's most prominent Chinese-American lobbying-network; and if I had to throw some overall label on it, I might banner it: "Wake Up America, Like It or Not, China Is Rising; So Let's Figure Out How to Deal With It -- Oh, and Hurry Up!"

Catchy and succinct as this label isn't, it was, though, exactly this idea that was most prominently on display at the Seventeenth Annual Conference ("Bridging Progress, Sharing Vision") of the "Committee of 100" this week at the very-Hollywood Beverly Hilton Hotel.  It might have been the Thursday night keynote speaker who framed the C-100's vision as well as anyone.

That was Ambassador Christopher Hill, who is America's widely admired assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. This high-ranking career Foreign Service Officer is better known in the world media as the Bush administration's primary negotiator with North Korea in the Six Party Talks -- organized by the Chinese government and held for the past few years in Beijing.

And so when Hill took the podium, a profound hush came over the large ballroom as diners dropped their forks and knives and cooled down their chit-chat to see what Hill would say about North Korea. But, fascinatingly, what he had to say was more about China than Beijing's troublesome ally in Pyongyang.  And therein, I believe, is the important story.

"The United States has to figure out a way to have a productive relationship with China," said the grey-haired, eye-glassed, middle-aged diplomat, "and we will do that. There is nothing more important on the world stage than the U.S.-China relationship."

The audience cheered, of course. This was like shouting out to a crowd of evangelical Christians that, truly, Jesus lives!

But then Hill took an interesting turn in the process of pointing out that boycotts of the Summer Olympics Games in Beijing would not exactly be a good way of deepening that relationship. It was in the context of the Six Party Talks, now reported to be close to a deal by which North Korea, while it perhaps would not renounce Satan and all his works, would in fact ditch all its plutonium and plutonium facilities. This would be a very good thing.

For dealing with North Korea and its famously reclusive leader Kim Jong Il has been, in truth, almost as much of a torture for Beijing as Washington. And so Hill cracked wise with this: "I would just like to thank Kim Jong Il for bringing China and the United States closer together. In fact, someday I hope the Committee of 100 will give Kim an award for doing this!"

The witty sarcasm hardly shot over the heads of the audience of Chinese-American and China-based business leaders, lawyers, doctors, professors and other professionals. They roared their approval. "Sure," added Hill, "we have some work ahead of us -- but when the U.S. and China work together, we can move mountains."

Hill then went on to tick off some of the assets the Chinese bring to the party when you have to deal with them.  One, he said, was its "reverence for history." In assessing issues of mutual concern, China tends to bring to the table a measure of time-tested patience that helps balance the characteristic American approach that regards problems as solvable in, like, 90 days. He also cited "ingenuity" and "congenital optimism" as two helpful qualities -- and indeed, ones that these two very different national cultures have in common.

But penetrating down into the core of Hill's China comment was the perception that the more China and America worked together, even on the nastier problems, the more they would realize they had a lot in common. As these two huge powers, each on the other side of the Pacific, clip-clop across the mine-field of contemporary world politics and economics, this odd couple, in its very quarreling, will stumble onto ways in which they can make their way together, and in fact come to the conclusion they are more alike than different.

As Hill had laughingly suggested, the two sides have Dear North Korean Leader Kim to thank for this, and, in a bizarre way, should be so very thankful that this problem-child of East Asia, instead of dividing China and America, has brought the two a bit closer together. This is no small achievement -- and perhaps it does deserve some special award from the Committee of 100, so dedicated to getting the two big guys to get along.  Whatever works...

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.