Xi and Albanese navigate the virtuous circle of Sino-Australian dialogue

Nov 3, 2023
Two chairs with flags of Australia and china isolated on white. Communication/dialog concept.

Prime Minister Albanese’s much anticipated visit to Beijing raises a key question. What rules of behaviour are most likely to energise genuinely robust dialogue, re-establishing trust in China’s relations with the West and setting the pace for wider regional and international multilateral responses to the economic, social, security and environmental crises currently affecting humanity?

At an October 25 Washington news conference, President Biden tipped PM Albanese that Xi Jinping had earlier asked him why he spent so much emphasis on Australia. Biden advised that when Albanese travels to Beijing in November he should keep in mind, “trust, but verify”. Ironically, the latter, popularised in President Reagan’s negotiations with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, was originally a Russian proverb. While important, this idea was less important than the key Westphalian issue of sovereign state equality and related principles of fairness and reciprocity as the basis for meaningful dialogue.

In Beijing, Prime Minister Albanese will likely call for “dialogue”, which “diffuses tension”. The more the alarm bells of the “China Threat” ring throughout the night, the more politicians have been calling for dialogue to avert war. Like a Greek chorus, the leaders of the Western liberal democracies warn that “irresponsible” China dangerously violates the “international rules-based order”, deriding the West’s “universal values” as “racist neo-imperialism” and threatens to build its own new world order, predicated in autocracy.

Chinese wisdom suggests “going south by driving the chariot north”. The contradictions of inequality in the state system have yet to be resolved, yet solace may be found in history. The answer as to how best to promote a lasting genuine dialogue with China today lies in the understanding of the current relevance of how early 1970s normalisation was achieved in the extraordinarily unyielding Cold War context of US containment of the PRC.

Conversion on the Road to Beijing
The Cold War was bookmarked by the great presidential illumination of rolling “doctrines”, including those of Truman (1947), Eisenhower (1957), Kennedy (1961), Johnson (1965). Observers such as Kissinger sorted as “ideological and pragmatic”. Overlapping activist doctrines extravagantly expanded the scope of US interest in the East-West struggle for “freedom”, justifying intervention, implicitly or explicitly, with, or without the UN, into the sovereign territory of other states. US doctrine regularly called for intervention everywhere against Communist ideology and system. Once in Beijing, in 1971, however, Nixon and Kissinger underwent a remarkable conversion. The Chinese leaders were actually “scientists of equilibrium” and “artists of relativity”. China’s foreign policy national interests “overrode ideological differences”. No intervention was necessary to deal with Mao’s ideology.

This transformation came with a qualitative review of seemingly rock-solid US “doctrine”. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine had long “legitimised” the use of diplomacy and force, declaring that the US would intervene against European powers seeking to create “puppet monarchy” and any new colonisation in the Americas. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, the man, who “spoke softly while carrying a big stick”, leaned on his “bully pulpit”, to announce the “Roosevelt Corollary”, calling for the US to act as “an international policeman”. The US granted itself a unique moral agency to use force in the context of an international regime that lacks final authority.

The 25 July 1969 Nixon Doctrine contradicted the “Roosevelt Corollary” proclaiming, “America cannot…design all the programs, execute all decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” President Nixon intuitively realised the importance of according the Chinese some degree of equality. He dropped ideologically driven containment, endorsed “Vietnamization” and greatly facilitated the normalisation of Sino-US relations when he accepted the parallel logic of China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, especially the principle of “non-interference” and the related operational strategy, “seeking common ground, while reserving differences”.

Chinese policy had already matured in its assumption of the primacy of national interest over the expression of differences of ideology and state system. Policy welcomed the co-existence of different system, ideologies and values in international affairs. Negotiation with the US could, for example, proceed even in the context of the war for national liberation in Vietnam.

The convergence of Nixon’s reconstructed realism with Chinese idealism barely got recognition over the wire, but it could not last, given the discombobulations of Watergate and a hostile US Congress, seeking to bolster Taiwan against the requirements of Nixon’s recognition. Recidivist US “doctrine” reinstated the wide-ranging commitment everywhere to fight communism and also to uphold human rights. Fed up with Western “bullying”, Deng Xiaoping still insisted on a “low posture”, emphasising “What’s going on in other countries is not our business….” today, the Chinese strategy of “reservation” from within the “international rules-based order” is contrasted with the US practice of “hegemony of system”. An important lesson was learned over the years in Beijing, typically ignored in Washington, but over the long run was surprisingly well received in Moscow.

In May, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping met Gorbachev in Beijing to bring closure to the Sino-Soviet Split, he casually commented that he, himself, had, during the 1960s Sino-Soviet ideological polemics had been too extreme and said, “…we no longer think that everything we said at the time was right.” Deng pinpointed the underlying cause for tension as Moscow’s failure to accord Beijing equality. Pundits cite the Chinese for their deeply ideological view of the world, but often neglect to cover the whole story on the changing policy weights of ideology and system difference. Particularly in light of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, and the phenomenal economic success of China’s “open door policy”, and the subsequent emphasis in Mao Zedong Thought on dialectics, Chinese political leadership has steered clear of “doctrinairism”, as wrong-headed ideological positioning.

Chinese “Ecumenicalism” versus Western “Doctrinairism”?
In hindsight, US conservatives like Mike Pompeo now criticise the Nixon/Kissinger assumption that engagement generates liberalism, as distinct from socialism. Our Greek chorus might still yet pluck Nixon from the flames of contemporary conservative disenchantment, to elevate the first principles upon which early 1970s recognition was successfully based. Smack in the middle of extreme Cold War tension over systems and ideologies, the two sides successfully opted to “reserve differences”.

Can this be done again? A second containment against what is now the world’s second largest economy does not seem possible. The opportunities for “reserving differences” have often been ignored in the West. The Chinese do say, “If the river is deep, the water flows quietly; if the stream is shallow the water is noisy.” The decibels of belligerence have increased. What is to be done about the increasing calls for dialogue? The “father of human rights law”, Columbia University Professor Louis Henkins once suggested “avoiding the hegemony of one state or culture” to adopt what is essentially the strategy of “reserving differences”. This is not a matter of competition over who has the best concept. It is an opportunity to come to terms with national interest while considering common values in mutual learning. Our screaming furies in the West scream warn that Xi Jinping is going to plunge us all into war. Yet Xi has insisted on a pragmatic approach to countries gradually adapting their differences to “common values, suggesting a rational approach to consensus building within an “evolving international society” that sets out standards of right behaviour.

This would seem to be a very promising basis for dialogue, yet Xi Jinping has become the subject of unending vexatious distortion by pundits in the West who might benefit from a closer study of China’s UN history and what Xi has actually said about China and international order in the past and present. Overgeneralisation of Xi as “Wolf-Warrior-in-Chief” hardly contributes to an understanding today’s developing “foreign affairs tradition with Chinese characteristics”, synthesising a traditional philosophical approach to dealing with differences and the Westphalian emphasis on the equal sovereignty of states.

Xi could not have been more ecumenical, “There is no such thing as superior, or inferior civilisation.” While understandably proud of the glories of China’s past, Xi has focused on China’s “rejuvenation”, as a “major power”, rather than a rising hegemonic “superpower”. China is to “participate in international relations to achieve great things.” Xi, himself, introduced the caveat that world domination is not an achievable “great thing”. On the contrary, such a “thing” originates with an immoral ambition that demonstrates weakness rather than strength. Xi draws on the Confucian tradition of “harmony without uniformity” and insists, “A strong state does not necessarily have to become a hegemon.”

Choosing the “Right Path”
Referring to a “shared future” in his 1 December 2017 speech to the Dialogue with World Political Parties Xi insisted “civilisations enrich one another” and “no country should maintain its security at the cost of another’s.” In his 6 July 2021 speech to the same Dialogue, Xi discussed how different countries might lend support for the “common values of peace, development, equality, justice, democracy and freedom, “Despite the differences between countries in history, culture, social system and level of development their peoples do subscribe to [these] common values…. We need to champion common human values, foster broad-minded understanding of the values of other civilisations, and respect the choice of every nation for its pathway to realising its values. In this way, the common values…will be translated into concrete and pragmatic actions by individual countries that serve the interests of their own peoples.”

How then is genuine dialogue to be conducted? Directness is desirable; rudeness is not. Big sticks and labels should be left at the door. “Dialogue” need not include protestation as to the superiority of specific state systems or civilisations. Yes, Australia has its own values, but this need not be a matter of frequent in-your-face assertion. “Doctrine”, treating China as an “outlaw” state, can only serve to denigrate genuine dialogue with a partner that from day one is presumed essentially disingenuous. Weighing quietly the relevance of companion Chinese values of modesty, reciprocity and honest inclusiveness to the rule-making processes, governing human and state relations may pay a dividend.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong made a good start when at the National Press Club, on 17 April, 2023, she set out an approach roughly compatible with “reserving differences”, namely, “to cooperate where we can and disagree where we must”. Minister Wong warned that all parties are compromised in any pathological trend, focusing too exclusively on great power competition for primacy. Such competition “…diminishes the power of each country to engage other than through the prism of great power.”

As the leader of a “major power” that calls for “harmony” rather than “hegemony”, Xi Jinping might well agree, citing the very first words of the Analects highlighting the “delight” in having “friends from far quarters” and the opportunity to “learn with a constant perseverance and application”.

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