Address to Peking University – The psychology and anatomy of a new model of great power relations

1 November 2013

I should begin my remarks today in Beijing by stating my absolute condemnation for the terrorist event in Tiananmen Square earlier this week. Any terrorist attack is an attack on our common civilisation. Whatever its political motivations, terrorism is a form of mass murder. It deserves, therefore, condemnation from all peoples around the world.

I wish also to express my deep regret at the number of innocent people who lost their lives or who have been injured by this barbaric attack. Such a terrorist attack reminds us of what we have in common as civilised nations around the world.

The power of ideas in shaping our common future

Sometimes people simply emphasise the differences between us: between east and west, between developed and developing countries, between China and the US. I believe the things we have in common are far greater than the things that separate us. And the purpose of this Beijing forum, both at a level of scholarship and policy debate, is to advance the common project which we share – namely the harmony of civilisations.

The truth is, how we think about each other matters. Both in domestic politics and in international relations, mindsets matter. How I perceive the language, behaviour and motivations of other individuals, cultures and states affects my language and behaviour towards them. Therefore clearly analysing our respective mindsets is not just a useful scholarly task for the academy. It is also an active concern of modern international politics.

As a former Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and professional diplomat of Australia, I have long believed that ideas matter in how we choose to shape our common future. We do not live in a determinist world. We do not live in a world destined for competition, conflict and war.

The truth is we choose our futures. And the choices we make about our futures are shaped by a range of inter-related factors:

  1. The values we have, whether they are specific to a particular culture or universal
  2. The ideational framework we have for understanding the world
  3. The political mindset which derives from this framework
  4. The subjective perceptions we have of others
  5. The objective interests we have for ourselves which may conflict with those of others

The beginning of wisdom in international relations is to understand how our choices are made. And how the choices of others are made as well. Statesmanship lies in finding the common ground between these understandings. Because if common ground exists, it becomes a beachhead for managing areas of difference in a cooperative manner rather than one which privately assumes that competition and conflict are inevitable. This means that both our scholarship and our diplomacy must be active and acute.

The alternative is simply to allow what I have often called ‘strategic drift’ to occur. Strategic drift is usually the product of passive and inert diplomacy. Strategic drift is where both individuals and states wait to see how events unfold before then reacting to them.

I believe the responsibility of diplomats and statesmen is to understand the forces that are in fact shaping events but in addition to that, through constructive diplomacy, to then shape those events further for the common good. This is where both analysis and policy, or both scholarship and politics, must come together.

Scholars and politicians should not see themselves as occupying different universes. Given the complexity of the current global order, and the vast array of challenges facing it, these two traditions must be brought together more closely than ever before.

For far too long, international relations scholars have often tended to construct a binary, ideational world between so-called classical realists on the one hand and liberal internationalists on the other. Classical realists often attack liberal internationalists as being too detached from basic power politics. And too preoccupied with creating an idealist international order.

By contrast, liberal internationalists often dismiss classical realists as perpetuating the status quo and undermining the potential effectiveness of international institutions to effectively solve problems in the real world. International relations scholars are fully aware of the fact that many attempts in recent decades have been made to forge a consensus between neo realists and neo liberals.

But the truth is very simple, we all have some idea of what the world is really like. And at the same time we all have some idea of what we would like the world to become by building a better international order.

For these reasons I have long argued that both these academic traditions have much to contribute to the current and difficult task of diplomats, political leaders and statesmen around the world. And that once again is where the Beijing Forum has a potentially useful role to play. Not in going through the motions of being nice to each other. But in crafting both an ideational and a political way forward for the nations of the world – where we are all faced with the tensions arising between the pull of national politics on the one hand, and the new global politics we confront every day as we wrestle with the new challenges to security, the global economy, and not least the global environment.

We therefore find ourselves at a point where the classical nation state wants to retain its sovereignty on everything, while in its more honest moments reflecting that every time we must enter into a new international agreement (because the problems we face are both national and global) we’re also sharing our sovereignty with others.

Second, let me now turn to China-US relations in particular.

China-US relations

Where this becomes a truly sharp-edged dilemma is of course in crafting both the ideational foundation as well as the practical diplomatic road map for the future of China-US relations. And furthermore, whether President Xi Jinping’s concept of ’a new form of power relations’ provides an effective framework for achieving this objective in the future. That is why I recommended to the organisers of this year’s Beijing forum that this should be the core theme of this, the tenth forum.

Professor Wang Jisi has already provided an eloquent introduction to this subject in the papers that have been circulated. He has provided a first-class scholarly contribution. By contrast, my contribution will be crude and political.

My own exposition of a new model of great power relations is outlined in my article in the US publication, ‘Foreign Affairs’ in their April edition of this year. And in the spirit of contemporary Chinese politics, I am happy to have my contribution subject to both criticism and self-criticism. Just don’t be too harsh.

I’ve entitled this short paper today ‘The psychology and anatomy of a new model of great power relations’. I have deliberately done so because I believe in this most critical relationship, what we think about each other and what we then choose to do together are of equal importance.

Let me make five core points:

First, we have already made progress to the extent that both President Xi Jinping and President Obama, and their most senior officials, have both embraced the language of the need to build ‘a new model of great power relations’. This is no small thing. For some time, US-China relations has lacked any central organising concept. Strategic engagement. Strategic competition. China as a responsible global stakeholder. All these concepts have been circulating in the last two decades but none of them have been fully embraced by both sides. This has been a real problem and I believe has contributed to ‘strategic drift’ between Washington and Beijing in recent times.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the central organising principal to China-US cooperation was anti-Soviet. And it had been that way for the previous 20 years. Therefore agreeing on a new conceptual framework, however broad, is a welcome development in itself. The fact that we are now talking about this in these positive terms is far better than the alternative.

Second, I now believe there is sufficient political will in both capitals to make this work. I would have not have said this with any confidence 12 months ago. Therefore this should provide sufficient support and encouragement to both scholars and policy analysts to work now on the conceptual framework for this brand new model of great power relations and what its policy contents might be.

It is very easy to come up with a new form of language or a new expression. It is much harder to populate the concept with real content. We are all familiar with the conceptual origins of ‘a new form of great power relationship’. We are all familiar with the historical examples of existing great powers and emerging great powers and the so-called ‘Thucydides trap’. However, while we understand what we are trying to avoid, we do not yet know what the alternative positive construct is for the US-China bilateral relationship for the future.

Both the American and Chinese sides will inevitably have different approaches to this. For example, the Americans will want China to fully enter the existing rules-based order as a great power, accept that these rules befit China, and therefore expect that China will never seek to change these rules in the future. Our friends in Beijing may have a different view of this. Our friends in Beijing may also want to ensure that the content of a new model ‘great power relations’ incorporates American acceptance of what China believes to be its core interests, including China’s position on contentious territorial issues on its maritime boundary.

We therefore know what both sides want to avoid – that is conflict. But we’re not quite sure what we want both sides to build. Knowing what we are against is one thing, knowing what we’re for is another. That is why the work at this conference is so important.

Third, in order to overcome the strategic trust deficit which exists between China and the US there are two possible approaches.

One can best be described as top-down. In other words, to reach a general statement of common strategic purpose between China and America which then drives every other element of the relationship in a particular direction.

Historically, for example, the Shanghai communiques of 1972 and 1978 were two such documents. In the future, there also may be a need for a new Shanghai communique to formally define the future, post-Cold War framework of the US-China relationship. But the time for that has not yet come because the conceptual agreement necessary for such a communique has not yet been reached.

The other strategic approach to dealing with the trust deficit is bottom-up. In other words, to identify areas of common, practical cooperation which, step by step, trust’s built. My argument is that both China and America need to be working on both these approaches at once – Top Down, and Bottom Up.

The relationship needs a new conceptual framework. But agreeing on the detail of one is impossible unless strategic trust is also built in practical ways. Furthermore, practical cooperative projects can only go so far in building strategic trust before they run into fundamental ideational or ideological obstacles. Therefore we must work from both directions at once.

Fourth, the scope of practical cooperation should cover strategic, economic, and environmental cooperation.

At the strategic level, China and the US could consider negotiations between themselves on the final ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. Simultaneously, they could work together on global nuclear non-proliferation questions including North Korea, Iran and other states.

China and the US could further enhance their global cooperation on counter terrorism. Within the Asia Pacific region, they should use the East Asia Summit to develop a new set of confidence and security setting measures to reduce the possibility of conflict by miscalculation.

At a very practical level, China, the US and other EAS States should take further their cooperation on counter natural disaster response mechanisms.

On economic cooperation, at the level of the G20, China and the US should work concretely on the new drivers of new global economic growth. This work is now urgent. This should include how to combine private investment capital, with sovereign wealth funds, together with global public institutions (eg the World Bank and the IMF and the regional development banks) to finance infrastructure needs across the world with a sustainable rate of return. Other drivers of economic growth should include similar funding investments for a global clean energy revolution. Also measures to radically increase global female participation in the workforce.

China and the US should also cooperate on bringing the current WTO Round to a rapid conclusion. A Beijing-Washington consensus on a comprehensive Doha text would virtually guarantee the conclusion of the round which would provide new momentum to global economic growth.

Regionally, the US should ensure that China can become a full participant of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP should not become an anti-Chinese economic block. Bilaterally, Chinese and American investment flows should be liberalised more within both countries so that economic interdependencies grow and grow.

As for environmental cooperation, China’s policy on global cooperation on climate change has changed rapidly since the Copenhagen Conference in 2009. China’s domestic policy settings have changed significantly with a price on carbon being established. China and America should now discuss how they best provide the common political momentum to drive stalled climate change negotiations towards a successful conclusion. Also, as the world’s two largest carbon omitting countries, they now have a responsibility to do so.

Fifth, China and the US need an institutional mechanism both to drive and to review progress on the work program outlined above. That is why the early convening of a working level summit between President Obama and President Xi Jinping held in California in June was so important.

It must become the first in a series of working level summits. It is only with the direct personal political engagement of the two Presidents that this work program can have any prospect of success. It also means that both the Americans and the Chinese need a single ‘point person’ in both capitals to drive this long term agenda of strategic cooperation, as well as manage day to day political and foreign policy problems between China and the US when they inevitably arise.

If a mechanism such as this is successfully developed over time, it also has the great advantage of encouraging the development of a culture of strategic cooperation in partnership between the two sides.

Conclusion

I am optimistic about the possibility of success in developing both a new concept and a new reality of what President Xi Jinping has called a ‘new form of great power relations’. This is not an easy task. Given the enormous differences between China and the US as civilisations, cultures and as political systems, this will be very difficult work indeed. But with political will on both sides, it can be done. Which means that there will be some compromises necessary on all sides.

As I said in the beginning of my remarks today, ideas matter. Ideas combined with political will, will shape the choices we make for the future. Choices which result in conflict. Or choices which preserve the peace in what I have called before a new ‘Pax Pacifica’. Not a Pax Americana. Not a Pax Sinica. But a Pax Pacifica.