‘Cold water preferred to Cold War’

Opinion by Steve Howard, Secretary General, The Global Foundation, January 2019

A hardy soul he was, wearing nothing more than bathers and sandals, carefully scraping the winter ice from the surface of East Lake, so that he and his friends could swim freely.

In January’s past, you could not imagine such ice on any waterway in Beijing. The air pollution levels were so bad that water wouldn’t freeze, as it now does under crystal clear, blue skies.

What’s changed? Well, China’s efforts to clear up its act have had great effect, but the latest theory doing the rounds in Beijing is that the trade ‘war’ with the US has also helped. The story goes that the trade war is having a negative impact on China’s economy and industrial output and therefore has decreased pollution levels – hence blue skies and ice swimmers!

So, take a bow, President Trump, for what at least in part might be some positive, if unintended, consequences of your actions.

Speaking instead of intended consequences with much larger ramifications, my flying visit to Beijing these past days occurred at the midpoint of two New Year celebrations – West and East. In addition, the news of an unlikely and timely third leg of the same stool came from back home where, at the halfway mark of the Australian Open tennis, a young Greek upstart had just deposed a legend of world tennis, Roger Federer.

A balancing moment, perhaps. A new way of thinking, of playing, of acting, arrives, takes over. One door closes and another opens. A freeze gives way to clear, if still cold, water?

This past weekend, at the State Guest House next to the East Lake in Beijing, I joined 40 other ‘scholars’, half from China and the rest from the US – except 4 of us from elsewhere – for a Chatham House dialogue about Asia Pacific security, or lack thereof. Most taking part came from high-level national security backgrounds.

Madam Fu Ying, one of China’s foremost diplomats and once Ambassador to Australia and the UK, convened the dialogue. The guest list was sufficiently worthy that China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, gave up nearly 2 hours of his Saturday afternoon to meet with us, for an off-the-record session.

What was going on here, over a Beijing winter weekend?

Seated around a large, oak table, wise owls, many weathered from having being up close to the sharp end of navigating US-China relations over recent years, agreed: China and the US need each other more than they are prepared to acknowledge or that the world is willing to appreciate.

Further, the issues that the US and China face, regionally and globally, are of such profound significance, that co-operation and co-existence are the only realistic pathways – even if some others might wish, from time to time, to take what may appear to be easier ways out.

Existential and legacy threats, whether nuclear, pandemics or terrorism, as serious as they are, are rapidly morphing into even scarier threats to the human race. Climate change is a real, present and imminent danger, but so is the potential for misuse of artificial intelligence and big data. The recent story, of the unauthorised gene-editing by a Chinese scientist, was another alarming moment for all concerned.

Much current public discourse in the US and China, as elsewhere, focusses on the many obvious and protracted disagreements and an overall decline in the relationship. Strategic competition is here to stay, long after trade deals may be secured.

However, the comforting news from our Beijing meeting was this: it is not necessarily inevitable that these issues will lead to conflict and to war, falling prey to the often touted ‘Thucydides trap’. In fact, that ancient Greek and his theorem were given short shrift, in favour of a more optimistic, if cautious, conclusion.

This is encouraging, even if only some of it turns out to be true. Of course, that depends to a large extent on who’s creating and writing history. So, where does Australia fit into these considerations? Although I participated principally due to the Foundation’s global dialogue track record and disposition, there was a curiosity in the room as to whether Australia really wanted to have a seat at this kind of big table, as it has done, sometimes memorably, in the past.

Supporters of the Foundation will recall that we ourselves have convened multiple versions and variations of global track-two dialogues on complex global issues, involving China, the US and others over the years. This series continues today, in the form of our Rome, Pacific Islands and Kuala Lumpur Roundtables, our planned London and Paris Roundtables this June and possibly, further such meetings in Beijing and Washington. Some of those who participated in Beijing have or will also take part in Foundation events, forming a rolling process of global engagement and trust.

What characterises these processes, such as I have also just experienced in Beijing, is that while they attempt to launch from an appreciation of respective national interests, they are generous, not selfish and self-serving in nature. National interests can be very different to national values, in that their effective expression and realisation often requires a deep understanding of and respect for a very different other.

Australia, at its best, is very much wanted at the big tables, because it can deploy an unusual form of selflessness, as an effective middle power contributor and occasional facilitator. This, in turn, though, requires greater clarity at home about what constitutes our national interest. For this, we need to decide to be our own master, to be no-one’s ‘cat’s paw’, in truth or in perception.

I argue that this should constitute a centrepiece of our national modus operandi, at home and abroad, and should flow from having genuine and ongoing national conversations. I like to refer to this as holding up the national mirror and facing up to the honest and difficult realisation about what constitutes our national interest, what the trade-offs might need to be, in order to safely navigate to the future. Could we not reasonably expect this kind of open communication and mutual process of engagement and education between our political class and the electorate?

Do we want a direct say, or do we wish to have others purport to speak for us, in how denuclearisation proceeds on the Korean Peninsula? How about on AI and big data, and having algorithms decide who lives and who dies, in war? Retreats to populism and nationalism are not going to solve many of these borderless and often intractable issues.

Great powers left to their own devices can also lead to sub-optimal outcomes. In my Beijing remarks, I quoted the well-known African saying: ‘When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled’. Imagine being left out of the big room when the heavies are working it out. Imagine if Australia woke up one day and found that the US and China had agreed some important matters and moved on, while we were still peering through the window, or worse still, the rear vision mirror!

Yes, I know there are multiple examples of how well Australia has done internationally over decades past. By all means, celebrate these, but let’s move up a cog, where we are able. Harness all the best talents in our society, including the Federer-replacing generation, in a cohesive manner. In addition, if we were genuinely selfless and really cared about our neighbourhood, those multiple smaller states that generally don’t get to have a voice, imagine if we offered to carry them on our shoulders as well.

Heavens, that might give Australia some real clout where it matters and where it would be welcomed, in many corridors of the world.