James Holmes

Bismarck, Not Zod!

How skillful diplomacy would be better suited to achieving Chinese foreign policy goals – not senseless bluster.

I was a not-so-teenage columnist for the Global Times this spring. Briefly, at any rate. Since the Times generally transmits official China’s views and I am an, ahem, occasional critic of Chinese policy, this was a marriage predestined for a quick annulment. (The honeymoon was fun.) The editors asked me to write something for the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, and to comment specifically on how Beijing can make its foreign policy more palatable to fellow Pacific powers.

I was pleased with the Times column overall but failed to enlist pop culture in it. Let me correct that grave oversight now with some supplemental advice: General Zod, the supervillain who briefly conquered Earth in Superman II,  is not a good model for Chinese diplomacy, or anyone else’s for that matter. “Kneel before Zod!” would go over poorly in foreign capitals. It would prompt them to search out the Man of Steel for help. Empathy toward competitors, not just allies and friends, goes a long way. That doesn’t mean surrendering your goals. It just means trying to imagine how a foreign interlocutor or his constituents will view your policy, tailoring your message in terms that are as convivial as possible, and accommodating others’ legitimate interests wherever possible.

Browbeating others or demanding that they behold your country’s sheer awesomeness seldom counts as empathetic. Yet Zod-like words are a staple of China’s diplomacy toward weaker Asian countries. Beijing famously prefers to negotiate with ASEAN countries individually, for instance, in hopes of preventing Southeast Asian governments from making common cause on maritime territorial disputes and other controversies. The idea is much like the one behind Otto von Bismarck’s “hub-and-spoke” approach to European great-power politics following German unification. But Germany’s Iron Chancellor used artful diplomacy, not bluster, to keep prospective enemies from combining.

That stood Berlin in good stead during Bismarck’s long tenure as chancellor. Beijing, by contrast, routinely warns sovereign ASEAN governments not to negotiate common policy among themselves. It has done so repeatedly in recent encounters with the Philippines and Vietnam. Such conduct is bound to encourage Southeast Asians to arm while seeking help from powerful outsiders. It amounts to self-defeating behavior. Yet Beijing appears unable to help itself. I doubt pursuing Bismarckian diplomacy through General Zod’s methods will take China very far. Like Superman, Chinese leaders should cast Zod into the abyss.