Disarray and confusion amongst the values, ideals, narratives and mythologies of the English-speaking peoples will increasingly press Australia to choose between a familiar past tending to decline and disarray and a challenging and daunting China-focused future.
Australian defence interests are increasingly shaping a variety of policy decisions in other areas, notably in respect to various forms of Chinese investment and influence. Most recently, Chinese activity in the Pacific has been used to raise rhetoric in this area. Much of the comment takes as authoritative the unexamined assertions of Australian values and interests and as unquestioned the competence of these defence interests in their interventions.
Issues of a much deeper character, however, need to be examined and evaluated if Australia is to avoid debates and actions that only serve to lead it trapped in a variety of blind alleys. Fundamentally, the global order is undergoing numerous poorly understood but profound changes that are rendering past certainties and comforts anachronistic and harmful.
First, China has already established itself as the world’s most powerful and innovative economy. This is manifested in leading in production capacity, embodied technological innovation, infrastructure capacity, financial reserves, educational excellence and aspiration, quantity and quality of human resources and asymmetric military strategies. Moreover, largely unremarked in the West, the evidence is mounting that China is increasingly leading the West in critical areas of military technology like hypersonic missiles, electromagnetic weaponry and quantum computing. Present trends seem likely to continue, given the depth of policy coherence in China and the growing divisions that characterize Western leaders like the United States and United Kingdom.
Second, China has little reason to seriously embrace a Western “rules based order” (most likely associated in Chinese minds with a “Century of Humiliation”). It is experiencing a popular revival of early childhood learning of the Chinese classics and seems likely to be increasingly and deeply shaped by these ancient classics and unrivalled millennia of history. A case can be made that China’s major Communist leaders since 1949 were all the product of such a classical education, but that this goes unnoticed by Western observers who are insensitive to such influences and rarely think past Western ideological stereotypes.
Third, China’s cultural authority is pervasive and profound throughout East and South East Asia, either through direct and formative historical influence, as in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, or through ethnic Chinese minorities that set standards of excellence in education, administration and commerce, discreetly shape much local activity and purpose, and contribute greatly to ASEAN cohesion and success. Moreover, China’s Asian cultural influence is now being complemented by the reach and dynamic of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is making Chinese infrastructure technology and activity central to the transformation of many distant parts of the world.
Fourth, China’s dynamic success and mounting influence stands in direct contrast to increasing bankruptcies and divisions amongst Western democracies and the repeated failure of efforts to preserve past areas of influence. This has given rise to increased reference to the movement of global power from West to East, but with little further evaluation. It is rarely stated, but the American struggle, often with assistance from its allies, to maintain imperial authority and privilege has been strategically inept and has weakened Western fundamentals. Interacting with this is the widely predicted and apparently rapidly approaching end of the reserve currency role for the American Dollar, potentially collapsing what remains of American political, economic and military influence.
Fifth, pervading and informing the above global transformations is a traditional Asian strategic intelligence or wisdom, which can be identified in the ancient Chinese classics that pervade the thought and actions of Asian leadership classes. Yet that remains almost totally unrecognized in the West with its false certainties about “progress”. The soft, yielding, accommodative and constructive character of these strategies contrasts starkly with the assertive and often destructive strategies with which the West built and still seeks to maintain its authority. Western ignorance about these realities is reinforced, not challenged by media and academia.
Australia’s future cannot escape this classical strategic culture as global power and authority shifts West to East. Australian defence thinking and activity is deeply rooted in its essentially Western past, conspicuously illustrated by its role in the Five Eyes grouping. This leads to alliance, but illegal, participation in losing, small but destructive wars and a fundamentally misplaced confidence in lagging military technology. This is despite growing reports of divisions amongst the Five Eyes in the alternative media. Much that is advocated in terms of defence interests is counterproductive. It simply reinforces anachronistic policy and alienates Australia from a balanced and realistic evaluation of contemporary challenges and likely future inevitabilities.
Of course, there is nothing in Australia’s past to prepare it for a daunting and challenging world where authoritative military, political and technological norms are best understood in the context of Chinese classical wisdom.
This assertion can seem shocking but this is simply an indication of how poorly Australia has prepared itself for a future that has been long predictable. Almost all Australians are trapped, passively, in a very distorted understanding of today’s global order. Proactive defence interests, often prompted by outside interests, however, are actively working to limit and block any better understanding. This denies Australia opportunities that are being created by China’s dynamic creativity in infrastructure and technology, which are already transforming Australia’s region and many other parts of the world.
Central to this problem is the disarray amongst the values, ideals, narratives and mythologies that have shaped the English-speaking peoples. Australia has a unique opportunity to choose between a familiar past but one tending to decline and disarray and a challenging and daunting future, which draws on the renaissance of a rich and proven ancient wisdom that remains little studied and poorly understood. In this context can Australian national political strategy be rethought? Or will the nation settle for something closer to Lee Kuan Yew’s decades old prediction of “the white trash of Asia”?
Reg Little had 25 years experience as an Australian diplomat, with 5 terms as Deputy or Head of Mission and substantial in-country language training for postings in Japan and China. He became a Founding Director of the Beijing based International Confucian Association in 1994 and was elected one of eleven Vice Presidents in 2009, at the time the only one not of ethnic Asian origin.