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Why is the West unprepared for China’s rise?

By Reg Little - posted Wednesday, 18 July 2012

There can be little doubt that the West is unprepared for China's rise. An article by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the New Statesman, repeated in The Australian of 14 July 2012, pretends to address this theme. It succeeds, however, only in obfuscating the real issues. It also illustrates the lack of any serious competence in the area by one of the few Western political leaders with apparent claims to some China expertise.

Any doubt on this latter issue can be illuminated to an important degree by another article in The Australia of the same date titled "A relationship we take for granted at our own peril". This was the work of veteran journalist and Asian commentator Max Suich, assisted by Australia's second Ambassador to China, Gary Woodard.

The former Prime Minister does highlight some important issues. These might be paraphrased in three sentences. First, China is the embodiment of a great global transformation from the West to the East. Second, China is emerging as the world's largest economy. Third, the West's "Universal Values" will come increasingly under challenge. Otherwise the former Prime Minister distinguishes himself with the stodginess of his conceptual stereotypes, the inadequacy of his understanding of Western vulnerabilities, and the myopic self-centredness of his proposal to preserve the existing international order.


A much more thoughtful, if tentative, comment on the dilemmas posed for Australia by China's "peaceful rise" was offered by the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and Shadow Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, in Online Opinion on 12 July 2012. This was in an article published under the title "Leadership that will define the world". Bishop suggests with great discretion and within the bounds of political correctness the almost chaotic character of the American democratic process at a time of multiplying global financial, economic and other crises. She contrasts this with the "overtly smooth transition in China from current President Hu Jintao to current Vice-President Xi Jinping". Appropriately, Bishop rehearses the "serious questions about how much of …. funding has been invested efficiently and in the most important parts of the economy". Nevertheless, there is little doubt about where the balance of competence, confidence and consistent purpose lies in contemporary major political leadership groups.

Bishop's subtle approach delicately highlights the limits imposed on much Western analysis of contemporary developments by familiar stereotypes, including those indulged in by Australia's Chinese speaking former Prime Minister. These stereotypes get in the way of recognising the seriousness of the impact of endless financial scandals, such as MF Global, JP Morgan and LIBOR, on the existing international order. Such scandals are close to impacting directly on the viability of the US Dollar as the global reserve currency, the solvency of the US economy and the maintenance of existing US military expenditure. In a most important sense, the West is today most challenged not by China's rise but by America's disarray and decline.

These two phenomena are not unrelated but few in the West are capable of comprehending the character of that relationship. Arguably, the process began even before Mao Zedong moved into Zhongnanhai. The problem today that Rudd fails to address is that the West has been blind and insensitive to the pace, character and substance of China's "peaceful rise".

The Chinese have accompanied their "peaceful rise" with the development of three separate groupings as possible alternative structures to fill in for the "existing international order", should this be necessary in managing their expanding global interests. These are ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and Korea), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (comprised of Russia, China and 4 Central Asian States, plus observer states India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan and dialogue partners Belarus, Sri Lanka, Turkey) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It is noteworthy that the 13 ASEAN Plus Three nations all have administrative and commercial elites shaped by Confucian, and not Platonic, traditions of excellence in thought, education and administration. Moreover, the name given to the BRICS in Chinese would be translated into English as the Gold Brick Five Nations.

The fragility of the "existing international order" and the "universal values" enshrined in it is increasingly vulnerable to Western excess in the use and abuse of privileges built into it in 1945 when American and British authority was beyond challenge. Chinese perceptions of American transgressions, whether in the Security Council over Libya, in the WTO over rare earths or in the IMF over the rescue of Western economies, will not lead to immediate action or even protest, but will simply strengthen the resolve to work towards a more acceptable and less anachronistic international order.

For Australia, it will be particularly important to free itself of the illusions that former Prime Minister Rudd tries to cultivate. The traditions, values and habits of thought that accompany the Platonic legacy in the West will be gradually but increasingly replaced in the dominant centres of power by either a renaissance of, or by the growing cultivation and adoption of, the traditions, values and habits of thought that accompany the Confucian legacy in the East. This phenomena is one common throughout history. Cultural and language authority is established by economic and political power.


Already, qualitatively and quantitatively, Chinese education, delivered both domestically and externally, is beginning to set standards that dwarf the capacity of other political and economic entities. This is likely to soon establish new norms of excellence. Moreover, Chinese traditional cultural norms are beginning to assert themselves in the growth of schools that teach the Chinese classics by rote to children from the age of three.

The traditional ideal of the "Junzi" is also evident, for those with eyes to see, in the comportment, discipline and strategy of the Chinese leadership. Indeed, it is arguable that an understanding of such alien notions is essential in understanding an emerging form of Asian Confucian leadership. Increasingly, sceptics will only need to be directed to Chinese advances in areas like space and deep sea technology. It is time for Australia to stop talking about Asian studies and undertake the hard and humiliating slog of catch-up.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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