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May 24, 2019

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‘Asian way’ rising as civilizations work together to seek consensus

Days after the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing, ex-diplomats and scholars from around Asia gathered at Fudan University to share their views about one of the most defining topics of the day.

Professor Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, opened a seminar on May 18 by saying that we are seeing the emergence of a unique Asian narrative, and at the center of this narrative is a shift away from Western-centric discourse on power and influence.

“Over the last two decades, we’ve noted a gradual development of the so-called ‘Asian way’ of cooperation,” Wu told the seminar themed “Is there an Asian way of diplomacy?” “This is characterized by an incremental process of consensus-building and weak institutionalization.”

Explaining that the spirit of dialogue and compromise underpins what is known as the “Asian way,” Wu said it has proved fairly efficient in solving diplomatic problems.

According to Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary and senior fellow at India’s Centre for Policy Research, the economy is one of the many areas where emerging Asian economies like China and India will have a big role to play.

Saran said dramatic changes have not just happened to China’s economic landscape since he first visited in 1974 as a young diplomat with the Indian mission in Beijing. He noted a replacement of the “trans-Atlantic” growth experience by the “trans-Pacific” success story, as many developing countries increasingly look at the Asian powerhouses’ meteoric rise with envy and long to replicate it.

Renewed by engagements

But despite the momentum of their economies, Asian countries are so diverse that their differences do occasionally get in the way of constructive cooperation.

Diversity not just exists between nations, but also within a country itself. For example, Saran noted that India is one of the most diverse nations in the world, home to hundreds, if not thousands of, linguistic groups.

Partly due to India’s tremendous diversity, it has accumulated considerable experience in managing diversity and has learned to apply some of these lessons to international relations, said Saran.

He illustrated this point by invoking Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line: “The house in which I live must have all its doors and windows open.”

This means that even though one is confident in his or her own civilization, one must be also conscious of the need for that civilization to be renewed by constant engagements with cultures all over the world, said Saran. Diplomats are at the forefront of managing relationships that are at times bogged down by competing interests.

Even seasoned diplomats like Saran admit that it is impossible to mediate differences if each party concerned insists their interests are supreme.

“Diversity in a sense dictates that we learn to cooperate and compromise,” he said.

Asian countries are often exemplars of the spirit of compromise. One has to look no further for evidence than the story of how China and India continue to engage with each other in spite of their differences over the border or certain other issues, said Saran.

Notwithstanding the contradiction in terms of how they pursue their interests, the two countries’ leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sat down in a five-hour talk during a visit by Modi to Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, last year.

The fact that problems remain in bilateral ties doesn’t prevent the two countries bearing the bigger picture in mind and cooperating under the framework of the G20 or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

“The general principle is that let us work together in areas where we have a certain convergence of interests,” said Saran.

He observed that the biggest legacy of the so-called “Wuhan Consensus” is not so much about arriving at concrete solutions as about fostering a spirit in which the two nations can communicate with one another in a candid manner.

Saran’s views were echoed by Masahiro Kohara, a former Japanese Consul General in Shanghai and now a professor teaching diplomacy at the University of Tokyo. Kohara said the conference on civilizations in Beijing came as the balance of power in the world is undergoing a dramatic shift.

The diplomat said he was impressed by Xi’s remarks that “no civilization is superior to others.” This is in sharp contrast to the view adopted by some Western pundits who subscribe to the theory of the “Clash of Civilizations,” a phrase coined by late American political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927-2008).

Huntington believed that conflicts are inevitable in the 21st Century as distinct beliefs, value systems and identities will put nations and civilizations on a collision course.

Kohara said history is littered with examples showing Huntington’s outlook on a world split along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines is too gloomy.

Avenue for networking

For example, the ancient Silk Road coursing through much of what is now Eurasia was more than just a trade route. It also functioned as an avenue for networking, linking the Roman Empire, Persian Empire and Imperial China, among other kingdoms.

Conflicts did arise, but the Silk Road opened the floodgate to a robust exchange of goods and ideas between civilizations in one of the earliest examples suggesting the limitations of Huntington’s theory.

And with the Belt and Road Initiative in full swing, and in the context of globalization, the dialogue among civilizations will deepen. Globalization does have its drawbacks, but a lot of academic discussion is now centered lopsidedly on the divisive role of globalization.

In Kohara’s view, Asia has again proven globalization’s critics wrong by demonstrating that it can be an enabler of growing cultural and economic interdependency on a regional level.

This process started with the Asian financial crisis in 1997 that severely battered economies such as Thailand and South Korea. Many countries have since realized the need, in Kohara’s words, to “strengthen and promote intra-regional cooperation.”

The outgrowth of that realization came in 1999, when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations published its first joint declaration with China, Japan and South Korea. Involved in the documentation of that declaration, Kohara recalled one of the most important assertions being that “the growing regional interdependency partly derives its strength from diversity.”

Diversity is indeed a source of misunderstanding, prejudices and even conflicts, but when managed well, it can be a catalyst for integration and growth. The question for practitioners of diplomacy is how it can be taken advantage of.

Kohara believes that the best answer lies in an idiom popularized by former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), qiutong cunyi, or seeking common ground while shelving differences, which still resonates to this day.


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