Tom Plate says while China’s Wang Yi is confident and optimistic, Rex Tillerson appears to be on shaky ground, especially amid mixed messages from the White House. If America wants to keep its lead in global affairs, a clear statement of purpose is the first priority
If you’d like a snapshot of the current state of US diplomacy versus the state of Chinese diplomacy, simply compare how the two top diplomats of each country are doing.
Whereas the foreign minister of China looks well-suited, secure and competent, the American one looks shaky, even over his head.
Let’s start with the American secretary of state, Mr Rex Wayne Tillerson. Unaccustomed as I am to defending former US oil executives, still, in all decency, somebody might tender a nice word for the once CEO and chair of ExxonMobil. Though Secretary Tillerson is on the outs with his boss and may soon be flat out of office, he is not remotely the weakest appointment in the Donald Trump administration.
Tillerson had been well-touted by widely respected former defence secretary Robert Gates, as well as by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The appointment took place in February. It has been a bumpy ride ever since.
Striking gold is never easy, whether in vital appointments or in the big-time oil business; but, in the field of international diplomacy, itself a slippery, oily place, Tillerson found himself on extremely unfamiliar turf. Not to be crude about it, but reports out of Washington say his days are numbered.
In all fairness, world politics is more complicated and inclusive than ever, so perhaps the job of chief US diplomat is not suited for mere mortals any more, no matter how germane the resume. The energy-industry careerist’s cosmopolitanism came from extensive foreign business travel, but international diplomacy is a more complex drill.
At the same time, his podium persona lacks that off-putting slickness that makes one question the trustworthiness: Tillerson speaks without giving you the feeling that maybe you are being lied to. He also comes across as an actual adult – a stand-out trait in the Trump administration.
Tillerson, even if he had the academic credentials and background of a Henry Kissinger, labours for a testy boss whose own weak grasp of international issues seems not to deter him from putting his hex on Rex. These mixed-message wobbles, especially on an issue as volatile as North Korea, are unnerving and can nudge the conduct of American foreign policy off-track.
On the Chinese side, career diplomats in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that gigantic headquarters building in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, must be on a high. By contrast with their global competitor, Chinese foreign policy, as currently enunciated, seems relatively forward-looking and coherent; and when they compare Tillerson to their boss, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, their morale must soar higher still.
Mr Wang is a career Chinese diplomat who is trilingual, in English and Japanese, and impresses his interlocutors for “always thinking strategically, never losing focus” (as one prominent former Asian prime minister tells us) and, as another source put it, gives off a confident air that his China “is on a par with, if not exceeding the US, in many ways”.
Foreign Minister Wang’s confidence was evident in a speech earlier this month in Beijing: “China has no intention to change or displace the United States [but] … ever more extensive cooperation and close exchanges at different levels have tied the two countries’ interests closely together. There is far more that they share than they disagree upon. Cooperation leads to win-win outcomes while confrontation can only result in a lose-lose situation. This is a plain truth that anyone with a strategic vision and sober mind will recognise. It is a trend that will not bend to the will of any individuals. Recognising this, China and the US need to find ways to better get along with each other.”
The well-crafted speech went on to declare: “Trying to reverse the trend of globalisation will be futile … Those who pursue protectionism will lock themselves in a dark room deprived of light and air … We will see light at the end of the tunnel as long as we keep moving forward.”
Wang was diplomatically indirect about some hot issues, but his meaning was unmistakable. “Some countries outside this region seem to feel uncomfortable with the calm waters in the South China Sea and are still looking for opportunities to stir up trouble. However, just as the high mountains cannot stop the river from flowing to the ocean, the positive trend in the South China Sea cannot be reversed.”
Not that further punctuation about China’s intent was necessary, but Wang chose to conclude this way: “Let me end by quoting from a poem, ‘With the rising tide and favourable wind, it is time to sail the ship and ride the waves’.”
The message to Washington, and the world, could not be plainer.
Whether the US response comes from Tillerson or from a new secretary of state, a thoughtful and well-articulated locution of vision is needed before the world starts to wonder if we still have it in us to match up against the talent in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Trump administration will certainly not achieve this by cutting the budget of the State Department, demeaning the great US foreign service, and trivialising its secretary of state. Whatever its faults and mistakes, China doesn’t do that.
The US appears to be in the midst of an immense self-demotion in foreign-policy intensity and vision. Contrast this with Wang’s optimism.
Professor Tom Plate, author of the recent Yo-Yo Diplomacy and the four-book Giants of Asia series, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and vice-president of the Pacific Century Institute