Last week, China’s President Xi Jinping delivered a landmark speech, centred on the significance of Asian civilizations and affirming his aspiration for China—under his rule—to play a more ambitious leadership role on the global stage.
Opening the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing, President Xi talked to the enduring greatness and diversity of Asian civilizations, noting the contribution they have made to global advancements over the ages. He emphasised Asia’s cultural diversity and pledged his commitment to “step up” dialogue and exchange as mechanisms for building the respect, tolerance and trust necessary for lasting peace and stability.
Xi spoke confidently on behalf of Asia. Drawing repeatedly on the phrase, “We Asian People”, he set out his priorities and values for the region, including the safeguarding of peace, a continued focus on economic development, and the promotion of openness and connectivity.
The ‘Asian civilizations’ narrative, skillfully crafted and delivered, has been some time in the making. Indeed, a quick scan of major speeches delivered by Xi in recent years confirm Asian civilizations as a recurring, though evolving, theme.
Yet last week’s speech was particularly striking. Xi’s language of openness, inclusivity, diversity and exchange sat in sharp contrast to that of retreat, isolation and rivalry currently preferred by Western leaders, particularly President Trump. And, it resonated with the largely favourable audience of diplomats, academics, cultural practitioners, civil society leaders and media from across the region.
But it also raised questions. In particular, what’s driving this new narrative for Asia, and why now?
Two primary objectives emerge. The first is to set out a socio-cultural logic that might underpin, cohere and bolster regional support China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Having encountered setbacks, pushbacks and negative sentiment over recent years, Xi has been under pressure to find a positive counter-narrative for his multi-trillion dollar initiative. Presenting the BRI as a broad concept aimed at realising the common aspirations of the Asian people, obscures the transactional and self-interested elements of the initiative.
Locating the BRI within a broader tradition of inter-civilizational interaction and exchange, and drawing on the nostalgic legacy associated with the ancient trade routes of Asia—the Silk Road, the Tea Road and the Spice Road—elevates its cultural significance and meaning. Taking China’s charm offensive to a new level, the ‘Asian civilizations’ narrative offers the BRI a new soft power attraction.
The second objective is two-fold. In the immediate term, the Asian civilizations narrative bolsters China’s claim to regional leadership in the face of the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric and tightening trade pressure from the US. In the longer-term, it sets out China’s narrative for the future regional order. In particular, it offers an alternative to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept promoted in recent years by Australia, Japan, India and the US.
Through ‘Asian civilizations’ Xi appeals to the undertone of disaffection felt by many Asian nations towards Western “hubris and prejudice”, borne out through the “thought that one’s own race and civilization are superior and the inclination to remold or replace other civilizations.” Labelling such notions as “stupid” and suggesting instead the need to “deepen understanding of the difference between one’s own civilization and others”, Xi offers a rallying cry that many in the region have been looking for, diminishing US regional appeal in the process.
For many across the region, Xi’s Asian civilizations narrative offers great appeal. Underpinned by the promise of economic benefits, and in the absence of leadership and inspiration from elsewhere, it’s likely to reinforce China’s position in the region, and bolster the Xi’s wider leadership aspirations.
Yet it is a narrative that also brings problematic contradictions and tensions, which are just as likely to arouse suspicion amongst some regional players.
The message of diversity and inclusiveness belies the harsh reality for many of China’s ethnic communities, particularly the Uighurs, living with significant oppression, not to forget the plight of Tibet. Xi’s calls for an end to conflict sit at odds with China’s persistent militarization in the region, especially in the South China Sea. While the inter-civilizational potential of the BRI continues to be undermined by gaps in transparency, poor labour and environmental standards, and worrying debt outcomes.
Xi’s narrative of ‘Asian civilizations’ has serious implications for Australia, and how we might go about prosecuting our interests within the region over the long term. Unsurprisingly, in the flurry of our own national election activity, it has gone largely unnoticed. We need to start paying attention.
For some, the immediate urge may well be to dismiss or critique the narrative, particularly in light of our own investment in the Indo-Pacific strategic construct. Yet to do so would be short-sighted, and risks alienation.
Taking Xi’s word at face value, it behoves us to stay attuned to emerging narratives of the region and engaged wherever possible in conversations—with China, as well as other regional powers, like Indonesia and India—as we interpret and navigate the shifting geopolitical dynamics.
Our response to China should be circumspect, developed through bipartisan support with the long view in mind. We should continue to promote the benefits of a ‘rules-based order’ over Xi’s benevolent leadership model, while reinforcing shared ideals of inclusiveness, openness and exchange. The recent announcement of a National Foundation for Australia-China Relations bodes well in this regard.
To borrow from the recent advice of Kishore Mahbubani (2019, 23), we:
“need to develop a good understanding of this new era that is emerging forcefully, and work … to formulate thoughtful and pragmatic policy responses that will help everyone prepare for the great changes that have begun, and which will only gather further momentum through the twenty-first century.”
Professor Caitlin Byrne is Director of the Griffith Asia Institute.
Please click here to read the full transcript of President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech, ‘Deepening exchanges and mutual learning among civilisations for an Asian community and a shared future‘.