Address to the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries

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6 June 2018 

Mr President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues. My heartfelt thanks to the organizing committee of the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries for the opportunity to visit Beijing and participate in this conference.

We are witnessing at the present time a period of unprecedented change in the geopolitical world. For the first time in at least three centuries the geopolitical balance is re-orientating from the west to the east. That process of reorientation creates both opportunities and challenges. It is on those opportunities and challenges that I wish to focus my remarks today.

As everyone in this room is aware, from the 16thto the 20thcenturies, certain Western nations embarked on a process of colonization. Although it is possible to point to some benefits of that process, most of the benefits accrued to the colonizing powers at the expense of exploitation of people and resources.

The great European powers, in particular France, Spain and the United Kingdom colonized vast tracts of land: in Africa, South, Central and North America, Asia and the Pacific. From the 17thto the 19thcenturies in North America alone, approximately 10 million Native Americans perished in what can only be described as a genocidal land and resource grab by the European settlers. There was a similar pattern on the other islands and continents.

Here in China the British used opium as a means of social control.  At its height in the 19thand early 20thcenturies, as many as 1 in 4 Chinese, or 100 million people were addicted.

The illegal 2001 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Americans and their allies saw the reversal of the Taliban’s successful opium eradication program.  According to UNDA figures, Afghanistan now accounts for 93% of the world’s heroin supply.

Two great world wars in the 20thcentury shattered Europe’s capacity to maintain their colonial stranglehold. They were forced by circumstance to cede independence to their former colonies.

Much of that independence was illusory, because a new colonial master, the United States, compromised their independence. Since the end of World War Two the United States has used its military might and economic power, wielded through financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the unique role of the dollar as the principal means of international trade payments, to effectively colonize nominally independent countries.

Where countries rebelled against this dominance, they were ruthlessly crushed through coups, colour revolutions, hybrid warfare, destruction, invasion and occupation.

Since 1945 alone, this power has been wielded against more than 70 nations and caused the deaths of at least 35 million people. That situation was and is intolerable. If the world was to survive in anything like peace and prosperity, then there had to be major changes.

The route to a different world was laid out in two notable speeches by the two dominant political figures of the present era.

The first was the speech given by Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, on 10thFebruary 2007.

Mr Putin began by noting that international security “comprises much more then issues relating to military and political stability.”  It involves, he said, “the stability of the global economy, overcoming poverty, economic security and developing a dialogue between civilisations.”

The unipolar world proposed after the Cold War did not happen, because a  “unipolar world refers to one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision making. At the end of the day, this is pernicious, not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign power itself, because it destroys itself from within.”

This system has nothing in common with democracy. The unipolar model is not only unacceptable, it is also impossible in today’s world.” We are seeing”, Mr Putin said, “a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. First and foremost, the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.”

Mr Putin also noted that increasing social tension in depressed regions inevitably results in the growth of radicalism, of extremism; it feeds terrorism and local conflicts. “Where there is increasingly the sense that the world at large is unfair then there is the risk of global destabilization.”

It is now more then 11 years since Mr Putin gave that speech. What he highlighted and what he warned against then is even truer today than it was in 2007.

Clearly, there has to be a better way, and that brings me to the second seminal speech of the 21stcentury to date.

I am referring to the address given on 7th of September 2013 by China’s President Xi Jinping at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

President Xi noted that more then 2100 years ago, during China’s Western Han Dynasty (206BC to 24AD) the Imperial envoy Zhang Qian was sent to Central Asia to open the door to friendly contacts between China and its neighbours.

What became known as the Silk Road linked China with Europe. The history of exchanges between countries since then showed that countries with differences in race, belief, and cultural background could share peace and development. The precondition that Mr Xi pointed to was that for there to be unity, mutual trust, equality and mutual benefit, mutual tolerance, cooperation and learning from each other.

The result, Mr Xi said, in a phrase that has come to be identified with him and his vision for the New Silk Roads was “win-win” for all parties.

He proposed a series of specific policy ideasdesigned to bring this about.

– Being a harmonious good neighbour.

– Respect the development path as well as the domestic and foreign policies people have chosen for themselves.

– Economic complementary advantage is turned into sustainable growth.

– Create new brilliance with a more open mind.

 Specific policiesthat would be implemented to achieve these goals would include:

– Strengthen policy communication.

– Improve road connectivity

– Promote trade facilitation

– Enhance monetary circulation i.e. trade in local currencies

– Strengthen people to people exchanges. Today’s conference is just such an example.

Since that speech China has given spectacular effect to the New Silk Roads vision of Mr Xi, or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as it is now known.

The BRI is the world’s largest infrastructure project by a significant margin. More than 100 countries and organisations have signed memoranda of understanding with China.

Even an initially reluctant country, such as Japan, reversed its position in June 2017 and is having discussions with Russia about a bridge and tunnel project linking Hokkaido with the Eurasian mainland.  Once completed this project will give Japan speedy access to its European markets.

The recently signed Panmunjom agreement between the leaders of North and South Korea had a little remarked upon provision to upgrade the rail link between Seoul and the North Korea – Chinese border, thereby giving South Korea the opportunity to also link with China’s Rail projects to Europe.

These developments are occurring within a multi framework of associated developments, such as BRICS, SCO, EAEU and NSTC.

Perhaps profoundest of all in its longer-term geopolitical implications is the move away from the dollar as the medium of international trade.

The gold backed convertible Yuan for oil trade that started earlier this year is just one illustration of a radical shift in the financial world.

This is not to say that there are not potential problems. Time permits only a very brief summary, admittedly seen from a lawyer’s perspective.

The BRI encompasses at least four major religious groupingsas well as secular societies. There are at least four major different legal systemspractised by the participating nations.

Each religious and legal system brings with it its own culture and social expectations. They will not always be compatible.

As a lawyer I know that it will require more than goodwill and mutual respect. Problems will inevitably arise and one of the keys to the resolution of problems is to realistically recognise that they will rise and to have in place a mechanism for dispute resolution.

Unlike the zero sum game played by the West, the aim must be to literally approach potential problems with Mr Xi’s “win-win” philosophy as one’s conceptual framework.

The other potentially huge issue arises from the fact that a multipolar world inevitably displaces a unipolar world. The problem is compounded when the hegemon that has been the centerpiece of the unipolar world reacts to the inevitable displacement of its prime position.

It is further compounded when that hegemon defines itself as the “exceptional nation.”In practice that has meant a disregard for the rights of other nations when they are seen as impeding the exceptional nation’s determination to mould the world in its own image, or to its own benefit.

We have seen this manifest itself in a constant disregard for international law, a point Mr Putin made in his speech in 2007. Notwithstanding this continual disregard for international law, the hegemon and it’s loyal acolytes such as Australia, are loud in their constant reiteration of their belief in the “rules based international order.”  What they mean by this terminology are “rules”and “order”defined by themselves for their benefit.

It would be naïve to assume that the hegemon will lightly concede its previous dominant position. There are already copious examples of trouble making, the primary aim of which is to disrupt the challenge from China and Russia to the unipolar world and to undermine the BRI, which is giving effect to the vision set out by Xi Jinping in Astana in 2013.

Notwithstanding the best attempts of the hegemon and its allies the reality is that the vision of Mr Xi is being given practical effect on a daily basis.

Our goal must be to ensure as far as possible that the “win-win” philosophy is the winner of this Titanic struggle.

* Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au

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