‘China and the West – how do we make this work?’

Report of a dinner with Dr Keyu Jin, Professor, London School of Economics, Sydney, 6 March 2019

One of the most influential of China’s young, global commentators, Dr Keyu Jin, addressed a cross-section of 50 emerging Australian leaders, many from Chinese backgrounds, at a dinner hosted for the Global Foundation by leading global law firm, King & Wood Mallesons, in Sydney on 6 March 2019.

A professor at London School of Economics, Keyu Jin has also been a leading contributor to the global Roundtable series of the Global Foundation over the past 3 years. This was her first visit to Australia.

Along with her informal remarks, Dr Jin also engaged in a lengthy Q & A session with guests, moderated by Ms Sue-Lin Wong, the Australian journalist recently appointed as the Financial Times South China correspondent.

It was fascinating to hear from such an articulate and worldly Chinese speaker, who did not hold back, when addressing the dinner topic: ‘China and the West – how do we make this work?’

As is our usual practice, the dinner was conducted according to the Chatham House Rule, to allow free and frank exchange.

Therefore, what follows is an overview of the highlights of the discussion.


Key message:

China and the West, in particular the United States, can make the future work through co-operation as well as competition, but it will require serious give and take on both sides and active contributions by others.

The dinner was presented against the strategic backdrop of rising tensions and growing uncertainties between the West, particularly the United States and China.

We posed the following questions to our gathering:

  • Is there hope for a convergence or at least an accommodation between East and West – especially as China, and Asia in general, assumes greater global influence?
  • Can Australia help in navigating a sustainable outcome?

The risk otherwise is that misgivings will lead to dangerous sentiments which can quickly spiral out of control.

The proposition was firmly argued that there is an alternative scenario to the ‘Thucydides trap’ of inevitable decline into conflict and war between China and the United States. The preferred scenario is one of hope and optimism, which requires adjustment and careful management by all sides.

Contrary to much commentary, this more positive world view is shared by a younger, more globally-connected generation, such as those present at dinner. They care deeply about a future they will have to own and therefore they believe it is both possible and necessary to navigate a peaceful path in a transition between great powers.

Traditional notions of competition and scarcity have changed, but notions of power have not. It was argued that world economic history, 200 years from now, will be written by China.

It is clear to those present, that China’s remarkable economic rise and its relative global economic power will not only continue but transform. For example, more than 50% of global tech ‘unicorns’ are now China-based.

A major observation highlights the contrast between the two great powers. On the one hand, China is now gearing itself to the modern, networked global economy of seamless supply chains that is displacing old economic hierarchies. The US on the other hand, is attempting to dis-engage from the global economy.

China has only recently fully embraced economic globalisation. China recognises that its sustainable standard of living depends upon an open world economy and integrated supply chains, as does Australia’s. China does not want instability.

This raises an obvious puzzle. Why is it that China and Australia, so strongly bound together economically and philosophically, are not closer collaborators in ensuring that the world economic system does not turn inwards on itself, as is the very real prospect?

Echoing her previous public remarks, Dr Jin described President Trump as a ‘strategic gift’ to China in the short term. She argued that current trade pressures from the United States would encourage precisely the kinds of domestic economic reforms that China needs to make for its next growth step, such as opening up its inefficient financial system to ensure more effective allocations of capital.

It was important to distinguish between intentions and implementation in China’s efforts to go global. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was a good example, where implementation has been uneven, at best. However, what distinguishes China’s intentions with BRI from those of the US with the Marshall Plan following World War 2?

It was also suggested that China’s projection of ‘soft power’ demonstrates inexperience in dealing with the world as it is and it will take time, for both sides to adjust and learn from each other. China, however, is not exporting its value systems, as others have been inclined to do.

Some at dinner held the view that China’s social credit system looks, to Western eyes, like intrusive State control. However, many younger Chinese have quite different notions of privacy and high levels of acceptance and use of big data, to their own advantage.

The need for a new overarching framework within which China and the United States can manage their strategic relationship was a key conclusion of the dinner. What the model is for that framework, and how well and how soon this framework will come about, remains an open question.

The dinner was reminded of the Global Foundation’s own ongoing facilitation of the ‘dialogue between civilisations’ at global level and its related ‘cooperative globalisation’ framework that serves as a means to encourage and measure progress to this end.

This approach, embraced by Dr Jin and an increasing number of other global thought-leaders, will be further developed at the forthcoming London and Paris Roundtables of the Global Foundation, to be held in June 2019.


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