Beijing should take a leaf out of Li Na’s book

by Tom Plate

LOS ANGELES — A metaphor for our dramatic world geopolitical change occurred in Melbourne at the prestigious Australian Open. There, even as time-honored warriors Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal were eliminated, a Chinese woman slammed her way into history. The relentless Li Na became the first Asian woman to advance to the final of a major tennis championship.

Mirroring the rise of Asia itself, Asian athletes have been winning top-tier recognition all over the place. But Li Na’s victory deserves special mention. Her graciousness after her semifinal victory charmed an entire stadium of hypercritical tennis junkies. This Chinese woman was funny, self-deprecatory and pleasant. When asked what motivated her smashing performance against a higher-seeded opponent, Li said, to a roar from the crowd, “the prize money.” She laughingly blamed her lack of sleep prior to the match on the snoring of her husband, who in turn laughed from his seat in the crowd. One hopes this special woman has many more wins on the world tennis circuit.

In fact, her government could learn a few things from China’s most famous tennis lady. Its pugnacious Bruce Lee Syndrome affliction, it seems, just won’t go away. Beijing has been picking fights with its neighbors, and generally letting its growing military do too much of its public talking, not to mention preening. The net effect has worked against China’s goal of reducing the profile of the United States in Asia — now that China’s neighbors increasingly realize the practical value of that role.

Just the other day — in the latest example — the government in Beijing slammed into a well-meaning American governor for deigning to organize a trade mission to Taiwan — the high-profile island offshore of China that thinks of itself as a separate nation. But China thinks of Taipei as the runaway child needing to be brought back into the fold, one that needs to be occasionally spanked — or even severely punished.

So Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called off the Taiwan trip because a Chinese government official warned him that China would pull out of a lucrative St. Louis airport project in which Chinese were heavy investors.

(The ugly threat happened to coincide with reports in an astonishing book that China has secretly made plans to invade the island to reclaim this putative lost territory as soon as 2012. The book is titled “Taiwan Disaster,” and the author is Yuan Hongbin, living in exile in Australia.)

Superpowers — existing or rising — tend toward heavy-handedness in their diplomacy, of course. Historically, the U.S. is scarcely an exception. But when China was, for so very long, actively trumpeting the policy of “peaceful rising,” the hope was that it would somehow prove the exception. But given the many bumps with Asian neighbors in the last year, it doesn’t seem to be happening.

China’s Missouri intervention deserved an official U.S. comment, and it got a good one: a proper protest from a veteran U.S. diplomat. In remarks delivered while in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, Raymond Burghardt characterized the Chinese threat as “absolutely unacceptable,” and added that “most American politicians . . . don’t like to be pushed around that way.”

Burghardt heads the American Institute of Taiwan, an undisguised front for the U.S. government, which technically recognizes only Beijing as a legitimate national capital, thus acting as if Taiwan isn’t independent, which of course China says it isn’t, but which Taipei of course says it is.

The blunt Burghardt was right to speak out on behalf of tiny Taiwan in the shadow of giant China — and the U.S. State Department in Washington, sometimes depicted to be about as firm and upright as a wet noodle, actually backed him up.

In fairness to China, however, it should be pointed out that it has been the target of much worse Western arrogance for centuries. No doubt the Chinese are now feeling their oats and dishing it back at us — kung fu Bruce Lee-style. And surely the issue of Taiwan is the most sensitive sore point aggravating Sino-U.S. relations. Now almost grown up and no longer so dirt poor, China is simply doing and saying what its past weaknesses prohibited it from doing. And it expects the West not to like it, of course, but nonetheless to lump it.

It may just be that China’s rise is enabling it to replace its centuries-old inferiority complex with a 21st century superiority complex. It sometimes doesn’t seem to care these days what others think of it, as if it’s oblivious to anything but its own self-defined definition of national interest.

The problem for China is the substantial risk that arrant arrogance will unite many nations in a coalition that ultimately might threaten Chinese interests. Instead of “peaceful rising,” maybe it has just been trying to sucker the world into a sense of complacency.

Or maybe it’s just acting as clumsily as the U.S. often has.

Superpowers, rising or otherwise, often have a way of being irritating. Even so, one wishes China’s leaders would learn from Li Na that true charm is the best diplomacy of all. She’s the image of China that can win over the world.

Syndicated newspaper columnist Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies.