SPEECH - The Confucius Institute

Confucius Institute Speech

University of New South Wales

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Sydney

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In my last speech on China, which I gave in June to the US Studies Centre Alliance 21 Conference, I argued we all have a responsibility to avert conflict by cooperating to achieve win-win outcomes.[1]  I spoke about the importance of our relationships with both China and the US, and said that Australia must not find itself in a position of having to choose between two good friends.

Today want to speak more specifically on the diplomatic relations between Australia and China.

 

HISTORY OF CHINA’S INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

China’s foreign relations is historically characterised by dedication and patience.

In the 15th century, Zheng He was a pioneer of Chinese diplomacy.  As a six and a half foot tall Muslim eunuch, one could say he was a surprising match for a historical leadership role.  His close relationship with the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Emperor, as a trusted adviser and confidant, led to him to ultimately direct the “new Treasure Fleet” of 317 junks crewed by 27,000 men on seven voyages.

During these voyages he visited what are now the modern day states of Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Kenya.  He brought with him tea, porcelain, and silk as tributes.

Legends remember him as China’s greatest mariner, who returned from Africa with a giraffe, an ostrich and a zebra.  Depictions of his voyages and the legends surrounding them were represented in the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony in 2008.

China was practicing modern diplomacy and projecting soft power long before modern times, and China now holds up Zheng He as the exemplar of its peaceful rise and its model of peaceful engagement with the world.

China continues this tradition and its innovative and forward thinking in its own foreign policy.

China shows leadership in South-south and BRICS forums.  Although it does not follow traditional donor-recipient norms, China has a very extensive aid program in Africa.  Investments of time and funds that China is making in these relations now are expected to pay off in the future.

45 years ago, in July 1971, then Opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, undertook an historic visit to China.  Whitlam’s visit, and his advocacy of recognition of the PRC are the foundation of Australia’s modern diplomatic relations with China.

More recently, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard recognised the need for regular and formalised dialogue with the Chinese leadership on key strategic and economic issues in order to strengthen political trust and understanding.  The establishment of a strategic partnership and a new bilateral architecture to guide the future of the relationship was an important accomplishment of our time in government.

Years of building relations and breaking down barriers have demanded unwavering dedication and persistence from world leaders.  This year in November, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke will make his 100th trip to China just in time for the 40th anniversary of ASEAN.

There is an unchanging purpose beneath the surface of thousands of years of diplomatic efforts – an investment that has as its return a safer and brighter future for both our nations.

In Hard Choices, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes these returns.  She details the years she spent negotiating with and forming a close personal relationship with her Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo and she reminisces of the occasion on which he showed her a picture of his granddaughter and said, “This is what we’re in it for.”[2]

 

MODERN CHINA AND CURRENT CHANGING LANDSCAPE

We have entered a new era of relations with China.  We are no longer just working to understand each other, we are interpreting China’s changing place in the world and repositioning Great Powers and Middle Powers within a new world order; we are working out where we stand, where China stands, and what that means.

There are two very contrasting sides to China’s emergence and we have to understand the significance of both sides.  China’s external face is one which projects increasing strength in the region and appears to be a rising world power.  But parallel to this external appearance, China’s domestic landscape is still facing immense challenges; the scale of these challenges is difficult for us to imagine even when you think that China has four cities with populations equal to that of the whole of Australia’s.

China’s “economic miracle” has brought new challenges to China’s population and leadership.  China has lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty giving way to a middle class with rising expectations to match their already rising standards of living.

The middle class wants better education, better healthcare, cleaner cities, jobs for their children, and of course a better future for their grandchildren.  And in the face of these rising expectations, China faces a set of development challenges – the pollution that comes with rapid growth and industrialisation, growing need for fiscal and structural reforms, and of course the challenges that come with a rapidly aging population.

President XI Jinping has articulated a response to this through his “China Dream” narrative which is essentially a call for greater equality in development and greater delivery for all citizens out of the miracles of China’s economy.

There have also been unintended consequences of China’s progress.

Jiang Rong, winner of the 2007 Man Asian literary award, gives a fictionalised account of the time he spent living with the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia in the 1970s.[3]  In Wolf Totem Jiang uses the destruction of a population of wolves as a powerful symbol of China’s traditional nomadic lifestyle giving way to development and urbanisation in the grasslands.

He likens the nomadic herdsmen’s suffering to that of China’s Last Emperor as their way of life ends and the ten thousand year old grassland is destroyed.

He writes of the Party cadres who come from Beijing and kill the wolves using modern weapons and motorised vehicles.  The key is that they’ve done this with good intentions – the cadres see the wolves as a danger to herdsman and sheep.  They also see the benefits of meat and pelts to the population.  Unintentionally, it is the cadres’ action that causes imbalance in the ecosystem of the grassland and the book ends with a Beijing dust storm caused by increased desertification following the destruction of the grasslands.

Personally, I was heartened earlier this year to see for myself the new trees which have been widely planted throughout the outskirts of Beijing.  These trees, along with other groundcover have been responsible for greatly reducing the size and scale of dust storms, and serve as prevention against further desertification.

The story of development everywhere in the world includes unintended consequences, and China has been no exception.  China’s capacity to respond to challenges on a scale we find difficult to imagine is remarkable.

What does this mean for our relations with China?  Australia can find common ground in challenges confronting both of us.

We too need a better response to the pollution that causes climate change.

We too need to continue making structural reforms to our economy, while simultaneously keeping unemployment low.

We too need to find new ways to ensure socially democratic values protect us against growing inequality.

We have more in common than meets the eye – and often it is our shared challenges which offer us the best opportunity to unite.

Inequality threatens us all.  Development without inclusive growth is false progress.  As our modern governments grapple with inequality, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century flies off bookshelves worldwide, we can look at what Confucius said on inequality:

“I have always heard that what worries the head of a state or the chief of a clan is not poverty but inequality, not the lack of population, but the lack of peace.  For if there is equality, there will be no poverty, and where there is peace, there is no lack of population.”[4]

Confucius said that 2500 years ago and it still resonates today when you consider our common timeless and borderless challenges.

 

RESPONSIBILITY OF BOTH SIDES

With China's heightened power comes heightened responsibility.

China will have to be a greater participant in the global economy and the systems of global governance.  It will have to be a constructive participant.  It will have to be a leader.

The rest of the world also has a responsibility.  We have a responsibility to make room for China as it rises, acknowledging its long proud history and growing economic importance to the world economy.  We have a responsibility to do this in a way that is true to our values.  We have the responsibility to see through the presentation of a false “choice” between the US and China.  We have a responsibility to see China’s rise with an open mind, and see that China’s economic growth is good for all of us.

We both have a responsibility as Australians and citizens of China to make a greater effort to understand each other.

We are all a part of this – and our relations have greater depth with each additional layer of society which engages in cross cultural Australia-China interests.  Good relations require the participation of students, business, and civil society.  They require businesses to invest over the long period, and the exchange of students and tourists in both directions.

No layer will find it easy or natural – language students from Australia will continue to struggle with their tones, Chinese tourists will continue to think sweet Australian breakfast items are disgusting, and business people will continue to be confused by the foreign norms guiding their counterparts.

Pierre Ryckmans, who passed away in Canberra this week, is an example of someone whose close engagement with China was a lifelong pursuit.  A sinologist and translator, he published under the pseudonym Simon Leys, and dedicated his life to the study of Chinese language and culture from a very young age.  It is that sort of lifetime dedication that leads us to better understand each other.

Fortunately, we can be driven by the adventure as well as the challenges ahead – as long as there are Beijing hutong alleyways unexplored by Australian visitors and pristine Australian beaches which Chinese tourists have not laid eyes on, our work is not over.

This work doesn’t start and end with governments and leaders, but as leaders we think at all times about the world our grandchildren will inherit and how working towards peace and prosperity today will benefit them in the future.



[2] Clinton, H 2014 Hard Choices, p 82

[3] Jiang, R 2008 Wolf Totem

[4] The Analects of Confucius


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