I have spent much time in Australia shooting episodes for my China Dragon TV and CCTV-aired travel show, Getaway. Had I not become a TV host in China I may have never seen the wonder of Australia. But this article isn’t intended to be about my sojourns in China or Australia; it is to ask a friend and ally for some candid advice. A penny for your thoughts Australia?
The country of my birth, The United States, seems to have lost touch with the realization that the world is not ours alone to do with as we please. If peace and posterity are the primary tasks of this generation, then this hyper-connected, radically shifting, vertigo-inducing moment of global change must be geared and optimized for open communication and the development of multi-polar solutions in which all players believe they have an authentic stake. We must not feel revulsion as we see ourselves (in one another) through the mirror that is the Internet. We must instead feel compassion. We must decrease our addiction to an obstreperous media-induced, invective-laced, military industrial complex- fomented, false critique founded on a “winner takes all" mentality.
This thought paradigm must be replaced with something altogether new- as Australia has been trying to do. “Replace it with what?” One might ask. I would say, replace it with the sublime power of empathy and genuine dialogue in lieu of an obsession with zero-sum games, quarterly earnings, corporate capital accumulation and corporations' generally incestuous relationships with the governments who regulate them. This emphatic dialogue that I see Australia working to build through its incessant positive mantra that seemingly diametrically opposed systems and world-views can work together to create better. Dialogue in a truly multi-polar context must be built on the bedrock realization that there is no single valid truth that may hold sway in the sea of humanity; there are instead a series of equally valid stories we, in the formerly dominant West, must try mightily to hear, respect and incorporate as part of the new whole. This is hard work, and I applaud Australia for being at the vanguard. I would further beseech them and their partners New Zealand in an effort to provide other Western outposts in Asia Pacific, counsel, leadership, and advice on how America can begin to make the all critical transition.
Australia is still dealing with humility, patience and to my mind great aplomb, with the aboriginal issues their arrival on the Australian continent presented. We too in America share a similar experience. The Navajo Indians, “native Americans” who existed long before there was an America per se, have a beautiful saying: “The world does not belong to any of us, it belongs to all of us.” That truth, like much aboriginal wisdom, is as simple as it is profound. Britain and its Empire managed that simple realization too late to stem its demise, but it did manage its fall from grace with some degree of poise, largely because Eisenhower’s America formed with the UK a “special relationship.” But as the torch of global leadership passes this time, to whom will America look to form such a special bond? Surprisingly, it may well be Australia. America has no more staunch ally than Australia. From the jungles of Borneo in WWII to the barren fields of Korea, and again in the conflicted jungles of Vietnam, Australia has, for good or ill, stood with America on principle, even when she has questioned the ultimate wisdom of America’s interventionist decisions.
Iraq and Syria are two recent examples. Australia has at times been rightfully hesitant about American foreign policy (and when hesitant they have usually been prescient) but they remain a stalwart ally. Australia keeps her calm, ever optimistic that, given time, America will begin to listen to voices of reason, the clarion that our world is changing and for formerly dominant Western paradigms and institutions to remain both helpful and legitimate for the incredible good they do, they must begin to adopt positioning rooted in humility, as 1/3 of the world begins to rightfully expect that its narratives, aspirations and history be included in discussions of our shared global future. This message to America is, I think, best conveyed by trusted, time-tested allies. America needs this today more than at any time in its 240-year history; especially as our pivot to the Asia-Pacific raises the very real specter of unintended conflict, born largely of a failure to communicate and unhealthy manifestations of nationalist fervor, outdated paradigms, and ego.
Having spent my entire adult life in Asia, I am touched and impressed by Australia’s ability to maintain by and large excellent relations with all of her regional neighbors. This in spite of commitments to Cold War-era strategic alliances whose obligatory dictums sometimes run counter to Australia’s newly evolving security and economic context. This steadfast but dynamic ballet has become Australia’s international calling card. Their deft touch is no more obvious than in the fact that China is today and will for the foreseeable future be Australia’s largest trade and cultural exchange partner, bar none. Australia walks this circus wire with uncanny poise. As an ally who has never faltered, America should take note, with due humility and a bent ear.
For while America’s relationship with China is apparently devolving into yet another needless round of strategic confrontation, Sino-Australian relations could hardly be better. Even as Australia walks hand-in-hand with the world’s two preeminent powers, she does so with her identity fully intact; her partners, even over slight bumps in the road, ultimately feeling sincerely respected by a willingness to engage in a dialogue of equal sovereign states. Worthy objectives, well met. This singular skill-set makes Australia unique and invaluable to both great powers. Australia, while culturally similar to the United States, is quite comfortable in its Asia-Pacific “skin” able to live and let live in a diverse, highly interconnected neighbourhood. Australia and Australians see no conflict between their Asia-Pacific geography and their Western heritage; in fact, they view their position as ripe with opportunity.
With 3% year on year GDP growth, even in an era of declining commodity prices, Australia’s steady, yet dynamic relationships with China, the ASEAN community, America and the world have held her in very good stead indeed. Australians know there is no harm in learning, and absolutely no shame in admitting that one does not know everything. Australia understands China better than we Americans do. Australia is willing to work on disagreements through dialogue, and thus has no problem doing business with China. Indeed China seems to be the power with whom Australia seem most keen on doing more business. That alone is telling.
Growth, prosperity, and progress are not zero-sum games in the Australian world-view. This is the Australian way; but can it help reform America’s relations with China? I remain hopeful it can.
It is obvious to the casual observer that America in 2016 faces a moment of soul-searching and troubled introspection. This is not the first time she as a great power has stumbled into what looked like unrecoverable domestic and international turmoil: The American Revolution, The Civil War, Vietnam, are all examples. America’s ambivalence toward, then rapprochement with Chairman Mao and China during a tense 1970s that led to Nixon’s famed meeting with both Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. Mutual interests were aligned, and eventually with a future trading partner in place Deng Xiaoping’s heralded visits to Shenzhen and then the United States where China’s “Reform and Opening-up” policies became known to the world. This, history will note, was followed by a success story in which both China and America as its largest trading partner can take pride: China’s unprecedented rise to a newer kind of glory over the past 30 years. Our shared history demonstrates clearly that if diplomacy begins with an open ear, willing heart, and outstretched hand, we can change; we can overcome seemingly insurmountable difference; but this can only continue if Western powers like Australia are sincerely willing to accept that the world-views and institutions like the World Bank and IMF created by Americans and Europeans centuries or decades ago can no longer provide the sole basis of global undertakings or agreements. The blind spot in US world-view vis-a-vis China, is that American policy-makers presume China will, over time, naturally accept, wholesale, previous international constructs that were created expressly by and for European and American corporate and political interests. To that, China has repeatedly and unambiguously said “no.” Western world-views must now be considered as but one among many valid outlooks in the marketplace of ideas.
I as an American can viscerally understand the basic psychology of the reigning heavyweight champion experiencing difficulty in acknowledging that paradigms in global leadership are evolving faster than we may have anticipated. A new faster-paced, a much more interconnected game of economic alliances, never imagined during the cold war or its aftermath are creating new yet unsettled rules and customs, and with it, new contenders with their own objectives. It is hard for the long reigning champion to pay due deference to nimble, up and comers, but as Australia has, America should recognize that the old paradigms have shifted and that the process of building new thought frameworks can be a good thing. Besides, it is practically inexorable. It is high time to move forward, principles intact, but with ears attuned to hear the Chinese nation’s story and its commitment to “科学发展” which I describe as trans-ideological scientific development, i.e. the ethos is to probe, discover, find and do what works best given prevailing conditions, without pre-conceived notions. This, Australia has struggled mightily to adapt to as they engage their Chinese partners. And I applaud them. Only good can come from such a methodology, if practiced without precondition.
Whatever ethos America aspires to, it should, at minimum, acknowledge that China’s accomplishment over the last several decades (lifting 800 million human beings out of abject poverty) is nothing short of a miracle in organization, effort, and National will; it is, in fact, a feat wholly unprecedented in the annals of human history. If we determine a priori that we’ve nothing to learn from this, then we must ask whether we ourselves are blinded by prejudice and inflexibility. That China achieved this economic and cultural feat in ways that diverge from Western political traditions and economic theories, should not frighten us (it certainly does not frighten Australia) rather it should embolden us to join with global partners in more robust outside-of-the-box thinking, buoyed by the confidence that humanity, as China has demonstrated, is not bound or limited by any one fixed or set or way of doing things. For we must be willing to think beyond the rhetoric of the past in order to address the momentous challenges we as a planet will face together in the not-too-distant future. Renowned thinker and futurist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” In this increasingly interconnected world, change, and our ability to learn, unlearn, relearn and adroitly manage change. These are the only constants, if posterity is the goal.
Yes, Change is the only constant. Bold change. The West should not, in my opinion, discard its phylum, but it should welcome the vantage point of others sans prejudice. The West should maintain our heritage, but be sensitive to any effects that heritage has had on the heritage and prerogatives of others, as Australia is doing with its aboriginal population and in its engagement in Asia. Stick, where our heart tells us it must, to unwavering principles, yet also find the heart to acknowledge that there exist other modalities of equal validity, this is the essence of the word diversity within a global community. Root for the Russians, cheer for the Chinese- for only when we become bold enough in heart and mind to cheer with utter sincerity for the success of those who we have sometimes looked upon with disdain, can we begin to hope and expect the same sentiment will be sincerely returned. Harmony is not a fairy tale, it is an existential must-have as the globe unites to save itself from perils we all share equally.
Personal liberty is a goal, a semantic, not a destination, we as democracies whose primary goal is ultimately the perfection of self-governance by the People should know this: China knows the arc of history and path to change is long and requires deep contextual understanding, work, and commitment. China, with its unrivalled historical pedigree, understands this perhaps better than we. The Chinese certainly have not been bashful about learning and applying what they consider the best of Western thought, so why are some of us uncomfortable looking in their direction as a potential model?
And while we tout our version of democracy and human rights as a sine non qua of solution to self-governance, we must remember with humility that the mere word “democracy” means absolutely nothing without an informed, educated, and engaged electorate as its functioning base. Until we ourselves have come closer to attaining that lofty ideal of self-governance, we should be less pompous in criticizing others for pursuing their self-determined trajectory towards a just society as they themselves define it. We’ve no time to be the moral educator or the school marm. We must become a partner in testing new ideas, or the mantle of leadership will pass without our having realized that it is gone.
Quoting from my favourite Hollywood movie, The Matrix- Fate it would seem is not without a sense of irony.
Has American been living in the Matrix? Because once all the various soundbites, astroturfing, and propaganda are stripped away, many Australians and others will note that China has never forcefully colonised far-off lands or continents for mercantilist gain. Can Western powers say the same? China has never chained and transported teeming hordes of humanity from distant lands to serve as free labour, till her fields or build her great walls and edifices. Can we in the West say the same? China as a unified community has never engaged in external conflicts beyond her immediate borders for the purpose of economic or cultural conquest. Can we in the West say the same? Is China a utopia of total harmony, totally committed to the service of her people? No, not yet; it is a journey, for China and the West. But are Western democracies, and especially the United States today truly exemplars of self-government, social justice, and human rights? I think an honest observer must say no. And if that is the case, we may do well to make our pronouncements about the advantages of democracy with more humility and openness to other modes of thought vis-a-vis humanity’s course of development.
Let us be frank, China is the first country in modern history who, without resorting to the West’s outdated and exploitative “growth-via-colonization” playbook, has in unprecedented fashion continued to rise of her own accord, under paradigms of her own shaping, in modes and at times of her own choosing, as a single sovereign nation. If we are honest, these too are characteristics worthy of reflection, applause, and admiration. These points are not lost on Australia.
No. No longer can any one country or culture claim a monopoly on “truth” or ideological rectitude, yet all can choose to advance human dialogue, engage in deeper understanding, rooting for, not against each other. This is the sort of new emphatic thinking that must be undertaken. It will pay dividends in the multi-polar, hyper-connected, global order to come. All people, no matter their skin color or ethnicity love their children, all want to drink clean water and hope for a peaceful and prosperous future for their family, the human family.
Containment vs. Unfettered Dialogue and Engagement
With China, a nation of approximately 1.3 billion people: America’s policy toward the PRC is “containment.” The word itself is regressive and frankly, to the Chinese (or any other people) patently offensive. “Containment” of China can not be the long-term solution for anything. Beyond being impossible to do long-term, it lacks even the most basic moral or ethical foundation. America can not nor should it try to contain the aspirations of 1/5 of the world’s population. Whether containment is fomented under the guise of Cold War strategic alliances or new Asian alliances aimed at aiding and abetting the seeds of nationalist fervour in countries like Japan and Vietnam. These gambits are incredibly short-sighted, self-serving and doomed to failure. America, a nation whose own 240-year-old history is deeply rooted in Great Power aspirations, revolutionary change, and the desire to protect itself from unwanted foreign incursion, should of all countries on Earth quite readily understand China’s national aims and trajectory. We too have walked that road, even if the underlying causes were born of different history and circumstance- China in the 21st Century, like America as she rose in power and prominence, both boldly embraced what they considered vitally needed security-driven change. That aspiration and courage should be applauded and explored, not automatically viewed with suspicion or dismay. That is prejudicial. “Containment” of China is a non-sequitur.
The three prime directives
As the two greatest consumers of the planet’s non-renewable energy, both America and China are morally obligated to drive green-tech and renewables R&D to the fore, as scarcity of energy resource becomes yet another source of potential conflict- evident today in the South China Sea. China is leading the charge in this area with almost a 3x rate of investment in green and renewable technology relative to the United States. This long term goal is one of the advantages of being able to plan over the horizon, and it is no accident that this long-term planning has been part of China's overall success story. As both countries collaborate to meet the scourge of extremism and international terrorism, there is no great disagreement, just a yawning sense of missed opportunity by leaders of both countries as we see what has transpired in the Middle East. Australia’s two partners, China and the United States and Australia herself all stand to gain by advancing the rapid, ethical application of technological advance. These tools and challenges unite leaders of conscience all over the planet as head-of-household for a much larger family; the human species.
Do not let strident Nationalism create fictive Zero-Sum games that abet conflict.
Having completed the task of bestowing what the United States perceived to be policies of peace and prosperity on the Middle East, the once sovereign nations of Iraq, Libya and Syria have been left in tatters. America has duly announced their new strategic aim of a massive pivot or “Rebalance to Asia.” If America’s impact in the Middle East is the yardstick by which China and the world must assess America’s success there, then China and others, including every honest American must acknowledge that our recent report card is not stellar. Whether America believes China’s assertive positioning is not completely defensible, no one can argue that China could be blamed for voicing very legitimate concerns based on recent and ongoing examples of American overreach.
There is no shame in America’s falling down. Missteps are the province of the bold. Yet there is shame in perpetuating policies that have simply not worked, while in the meantime causing untold death and chaos for scores of millions. This year the Rio Olympics will have, for the first time, a team composed of nationless and homeless athletes; it is called Team Refugee. The team is largely composed of athletes from the Middle East who no longer have a home country to represent. Team Refugee, it might be fairly said, is a decidedly American legacy.
Yes, America’s litany of disaster calls for moments of self-reflection and humility. It also calls for gestures of gratitude to our partners, including those with whom we may disagree at times like China, and stalwart allies like Australia neither of whom have yet disregarded us and our abysmal foreign policy track record wholesale out of horror and fatigue. Tenderest of mercies, our Australian and other friends and allies, remain, but they are left wondering what exactly is America’s grand plan for righting utter carnage in the Middle East will be, as they imagine what America’s looming “rebalance to Asia” will mean for the Asia-Pacific region. Humble pie is always hard to swallow, but we as America must be clear and unambiguous in our collective intent; we must resolve to change and explain what those changes will mean and look like.
We might, as a start, consider a public apology prior to our grand pivot to Asia.
America must be unambiguous in its intent; it should resolve to exact a lighter footprint when attempting to entreat others to do our bidding. An apology may well be a cathartic first step, for whatever the United States government and her well-meaning People intended to remedy in the Middle East over the past 15 years, it has not worked, while millions of innocents continue to perish as a result. And it is resulting in a trope that the Chinese can, if they choose, continuously use (legitimately or not) to indicate that we have lost the Mandate of Heaven by virtue of piss poor handling of global peace and prosperity in the aftermath of America’s worst terror attack. Whether or not we choose to apologize, if the last 2 decades’ US policy pillars are to be applied again in our “Rebalance to Asia,” the entire world has justifiable reason to ask hard questions and express grave concern.
A common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while somehow expecting to produce a markedly different result. America is running perilously close to fitting that bill entirely. Internationally we have again chosen to scapegoat the Chinese, the Russians and anyone else who has somehow prevented us from “Mak(ing) America Great Again.” So I ask, would it not profit us more to ask what it is that made America so un-great in the first place? The rhetoric has become so circular and infamous, you might excuse calmer heads for thinking a good portion of America's political establishment has lost a degree perspective, history and perhaps the courage born of admitting failure, brushing off and re-engaging, thus becoming the wiser for it.
If this crescendo towards outright physical conflict in Asia and the South China Sea continues, the blame in many respects must lay at the doorstep of America’s own bankrupt policy in the Middle East and elsewhere: both in acts of commission (premeditated invasion, interference and corporate mercantilism) and omission (the failure to properly inform and educate its voting populace) for I would again argue that the mere word “democracy” means absolutely nothing without an informed, engaged, emphatic electorate as “democracy’s” functioning base.
The world does not belong to any of us, it belongs to all of us.
A penny for your thoughts Australia? America needs the advice of good friends, now more than ever.Andrew C. Ballen （青年观察者胡怡莹译、杨晗轶校）