The two men—that is, we think they were men—were holding their last meeting.
They met in an odd structure in the middle of a green meadow. One half of the structure was built as an American-style gazebo, in white wood, and the other half was built as a Chinese-style gazebo, or, as the Chinese would call it, a liangting—all red lacquer columns and a pagoda-shaped curved roof.
Yes, it was a strange hybrid building; everything was split exactly down the middle—half American style, half Chinese style. And that was the point: everything was supposed to be even.
The American man said to the Chinese man, “My friend, it’s been quite a century.” The Chinese man smiled and nodded, “Yes, my wise friend, you are quite right.”
It had been that way—a study in exaggerated politeness—for 100 years. And that’s the way it had to be, if America and China were to keep the peace. Which, fortunately, they had done.
The American thought back 100 years, to 2015, to the events that precipitated the rigorously mediated symmetrical new relationship between America and China. Yes, the American could remember clearly what it was like for him to be a mid-career diplomat for the State Department—when he got the assignment that would define the rest of his life. At least, he thought he could remember: It occurred to him that the memories might have been implanted.
But no matter: Whether he was a human, an android, or something in between, the American was happy to have been serving his country; whatever he was, precisely, he felt that the proof that he had done his duty to his country was all around him: He could glance down at his Apple tablet and see data reminders of the fact that the US and China had enjoyed peace for 100 years. And for his part, the Chinese diplomat could glance down at his Xiaomi tablet and see the same thing (Yes, the two diplomats, friendly as they were, still maintained their strict division of equipment based on nationality).
Yet both figures knew that for a time there, in the early 21st century, it had seemed inevitable that the US and China would drift into conflict. The American shuddered, even now, to think back to the events of 2015, to recall how close the two great countries had come to war.
As the America looked back, he could remember four hot issues—flashpoints was certainly a better word—that vexed Sino-American relations in the second decade of the 21st century:
First, the Chinese build-up of the “Great Sand Wall”—that is, the construction of artificial islands—in the South China Sea.
Fourth, and perhaps most upsetting to the US-China relationship, the case of Shohret Hoshur, a Uighur—that is, a Chinese Muslim—who had left China as an exile and found himself working at Radio Free Asia in Washington DC. Hoshur’s anti-Chinese journalism had become a major bone of contention between the two countries, even if the vast majority of Americans knew nothing of it. Indeed, most Americans of 2015 might not even have known about the existence of a US-funded Radio Free Asia. Like its better-known institutional relative, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia was a product of the Cold War; during the Cold War, it had made sense for the US to fund anti-communist propaganda to undercut the communist regimes of Europe and Asia.
But that was in the 20th century; what about in the 21st century, when there were no communists? What about when the Chinese, for better or worse, were more capitalistic than the Americans? In the 21st century, China had not only been capitalist, but had also been our major trading partner; so what sense did it make to fund a media outlet that was simply anti-Chinese? Once again, few Americans had ever heard of Radio Free Asia, let alone Shohret Hoshur, but the Chinese government certainly knew who he was, and they wanted him stopped.
What was the big issue? Why had the Chinese been so exasperated by him? The concern in Beijing was that there were 50 million Muslim Uighurs living in China, and Hoshur and other anti-Chinese propagandists were stirring them up into acts of hostility, even terror, against the Chinese people. And while the American people of course believed in free speech, they didn’t believe in incitement and terror and murder. And so surely the American public didn’t think that the US government should be financing broadcasts aimed at inflaming Islamic radicalism in China.
Indeed, Americans who studied the US-China relationship had concluded that belligerent Chinese acts against the US was closely linked to the specific case of Hoshur. And again, the fact that most Americans didn’t even know anything about Hoshur and Radio Free Asia only made the situation more perverse: The US was financing a man deemed to be a mortal enemy of China in an instance of what might be called national absent-mindedness for the Americans.
So in 2015, as all these issues, or flashpoints, became clear to policymakers in both Washington and Beijing, the two countries decided to do something; they needed to do something to improve relations and keep the peace. That is, both great nations could see that they were on a track of tit-for-tat that could ultimately lead to war. Yes, the gloomy specter of a 1914-like scenario—little things escalating, seemingly uncontrollably, into big things—cast a pall over both capitals. Indeed, the prospect of a war that neither side was confident it could win militarily began, as leaders said at the time, to “clarify” the thinking of the two nations. That is, while it was easy for both sides to see how a war could start, it was impossible to see how one country or the other could emerge victorious.
Fortunately, happily—perhaps even miraculously—the leaders of both nations saw that such a no-win war would do neither of them any good.
So that’s when the two countries hit on the idea of the gazebo, or liangting, process. It was, as they called it, a sort of “human hotline”: The two men, one American diplomat, one Chinese diplomat, would simply sit with each other in the gazebo/liangting and stay in close touch with each other so as to avoid any sort of misunderstanding that could lead to conflict. That is, in any potentially difficult situation, the two men, representatives of the two nations, would be there to smooth over any rough patches in the relationship. They would abide by a simple rule: Split everything 50:50. In other words, for any dispute that might arise between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, their assigned mission was to make sure that the adjudication between the two countries was exactly equal. The idea was that there would never be any winners, nor any favorites—just a split down the middle. Yes, it was a heavy responsibility that the two countries placed on the two men—if, in fact, they were men and not computers.
And so as the American and the Chinese diplomats sat down in the gazebo/liangting with each other for the first time in 2015, the issue of Hoshur and Radio Free Asia came up immediately. The Chinese man asked, “Is it really a good idea for the American government to have on its payroll someone who is spewing out anti-Chinese propaganda? Someone who is riling up China’s Muslim population?”
The American answered with two questions of his own: “Do you think that if Hoshur were not working for the US government, that relations between our two countries would improve? In particular, do you think that there would be less hacking of US Government computers?”
The Chinese man smiled and nodded, and so what the Americans called “Gazebo Diplomacy” was given its first test: Hoshur was fired from his job at Radio Free Asia, and the budget for the organization was cut. Then the Americans waited to see if the Chinese government would reciprocate: In particular, would it reduce its hacking activities? And in fact, that’s exactly what happened: After Hoshur was removed from his job, the hacking activity ceased. In diplomatic terminology, it was a “confidence-building exchange.” That is, the US did something nice for China, and China did something nice for the US.
As the Chinese diplomat said at the time, “The Chinese people will be much more contented if the propagandist and provocateur Hoshur is no longer working for the American government.” And the American said, “Yes, my friend, you are right: We can’t let one individual cause harm to our nations’ friendship. And in the meantime, the American people are happy that the cyber-attacks on the US government have subsided.” What the American didn’t say was that there was enormous relief that the Chinese hacks had stopped—because, in fact, there was real concern in Washington that the Americans could not keep up with the Chinese threat; the Chinese were simply better at hacking than the Americans. In particular, American military planners had breathed a sigh of relief, because they knew that the next war, if there was one, would be in part a computer war, and the quality of Chinese hacking had made American strategists fearful about the potential outcome.
Thus the case of Hoshur became not only the first test of Gazebo Diplomacy, but also a test that both countries, as it were, passed with flying colors.
There would, of course, be many such tests in the ten decades to come. All through the 21st century, the USA and PRC continued to grow their economies—and thus their scope and influence.
As a result, on many occasions, the two men in the gazebo had to settle the sorts of tiffs and scrapes that inevitably arise in international politics. For example, both America and China had ambitions in Africa, and these had to be worked out somehow—and so the issue of disputes over mineral rights came to the men in the gazebo.
Fortunately for the cause of international peace and harmony, the two men were very fair-minded. They followed their mandate to the letter: split everything in half.
And they were fully focused on their mission. Once, in 2036, when they were at work in the gazebo on the proper way to split the intellectual property of cloned human beings, a parade of young naked women appeared outside the gazebo, in plain view of both men (if, that is, they were truly both men, not robots). Both diplomats saw the bevy of beauties, but neither looked up from their work for more than a second or two. Later, both diplomats agreed that the parade of nubile flesh was probably a test by one or both of their governments. If so, it was a test that the representatives of both countries passed; they did not allow themselves to be distracted—their work was more important.
We might note that this strong commitment to even-handedness and symmetry is what enabled the two diplomats, and their respective countries, to overcome the greatest challenges to their relationship. That is, when the American asked, “Is it really necessary that China support Iran?” the Chinese answered, “No, it is not necessary.” And then the Chinese continued with a new diplomatic offer: “It is no more necessary for China to support Iran than it is, I think, for the US to support the Uighurs, in China, or anywhere else.”
Whereupon the American smiled and nodded; a new level of understanding between the two countries had been achieved. The Americans could now see a clear path to take decisive action against Iran, and the Chinese could now a clear path to take equally decisive action against the Uighurs. And as we all know, the history of the 21st century was decisively different as a result: Soon after that friendly but consequential exchange in the gazebo, the US took decisive action against Iran, and the Chinese took equally decisive action against the Uighurs. And so the history—and demography—of the world was dramatically changed, even as the two superpowers maintained their good relations. The leaders of both America and China told their peoples with an air of grim finality, “Sometimes it is necessary to act with both certainty and precision.” Indeed, the statements from the leaders of both nations had been worked out and cleared by the twinned diplomats in the gazebo, to be delivered at the same time. And so, we might say, the threats from both Iran and the Uighurs went away.
But that was decades ago, when the US moved decisively against Iran and the PRC moved decisively against the Uighurs. Since then, both countries have moved on to new challenges—and new opportunities.
And the biggest of those opportunities was to be found in space. To put it bluntly, both countries had grown so rich that they had outgrown the earth. It was time, early in the 22nd century, for the two nations to look to the stars. Once again, the formula was simple: The two superpowers would simply divide the universe between them. The Chinese would go east, as it were, into space, and the Americans would go west. Of course, the Solar System, containing the other planets besides Earth, as well as the moons and the asteroid belt, would have to be divided. Once again, the division would be equal; as the American said, using familiar slang, the split would be “even-steven.”
And yet because of the complexity of this division, the two nations decided that they needed a more robust plan than simply the two diplomats in the gazebo. Instead, in the year 2115, they unveiled their latest invention, the Joint-Race Guardians. That is, the two countries created a new race of clones, who were to be exactly one-half American and one-half Chinese. And according to their programming—although some preferred the word “training,” or even “upbringing”—they were incapable of having a hostile thought against either the USA or PRC.
The Joint-Race Guardians would serve at the borderline between the American and Chinese sectors in space. As with the diplomats in the gazebo, their job would be to make sure that each dispute was handled judiciously.
And so now, in the year 2115, the two diplomats in the gazebo could look forward to an honored retirement. They had done their job well. And over the previous century, their two countries had grown ever more rich and powerful. Moreover, the duo felt a certain amount of pride to see that the same bilateral vision was being applied to the future.
The Chinese diplomat said with a smile, “Well, my good friend, I guess we won’t be seeing much of each other in the future. Our two countries will soon be seeking their glorious destiny in space, and so they don’t need us to settle small disputes here on earth anymore.”
To which the American replied, “Yes, my good friend. Our personal work is done. But I like to think that our great work—the great work of our peaceful and triumphant advance into the stars—is only beginning. And so, with apologies to what they they said in an American movie from the mid-20th century, Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Yes,” said the Chinese. “That’s very wise. As always.”