Xi Jinping has become "China's president for life" after a clause restricting presidential terms is removed from the Chinese constitution. Photo: AP

Recent years have seen China taking the lead in recasting global governance structures and processes that it believes had been dominated so far by Greco-Roman and Anglo-Saxon cultures and countries. So whether it be globalization discourse or climate-change mitigation initiatives, China has taken on added responsibilities.

China’s leadership in these sectors has become especially conspicuous in face of US President Donald Trump’s isolationist impulses that have seen him abandon America’s global responsibilities. Indeed, these are interesting times when both the dominant and the aspirant power seem dissatisfied with the status quo that has ensured their dominance and rise respectively. But at the same time both have experienced increasing hostility, which has recently been overplayed in their tariff wars and related commentaries from both sides.

In his opening speech to the opening session of his inaugural Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC), Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday explained how, as global challenges are becoming far too daunting to avoid joint responsibilities, the world is moving rapidly toward multilateralism, unleashing an ever-expanding experience of diversity.

Second, other than the changing structures, Xi also underlined how all nations in future will have to leverage “culture” just as in the past they have leveraged economy and military to address their national grievances.

Third, he said a cursory look at the evolution of Asian civilizations shows that these have made indelible contributions to such sectors as law, literature, customs, classics, music, and  management of towns and villages that today provide a “rich choice” to humankind. This also is the cause of Asia’s rising self-confidence where a dialogue of Asian civilizations can take them to their next stage of glory. 

Now imagine all this coming barely two weeks after Kiron Skinner, the US State Department’s director for policy planning, describing America’s competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology,” and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this Monday talking of “like-minded” nations “banding together” to protect their sovereignty from China’s assertive politics. Having moved beyond geo-strategy to geo-economics where China has mastered the art of leading, this should now unleash a specter of geo-civilizational cold war, the next buzzword in foreign-policy theologies.

On the flip side, of course, President Xi also underlined how Asian societies remain exposed to poverty and disease, especially vulnerable sections like women and children. Having earned laurels for China’s impeccable record in poverty alleviation, Xi offered to work in promoting for economic globalization as a locomotive for eradicating poverty and bringing happiness and prosperity.

He even cautioned that self-exclusion from this expanding intermingling of nations is no longer a choice, as it would only produce disastrous consequences. He outlined his vision of “jointly building a community of shared future” that allows celebrating diversity and mutual learning. This again will be seen as driven tactically by a certain deceleration in China’s economic growth and exports that drive its economy, where the US tariff blitzkrieg is pushing China to expand its Asian partnerships. 

Xi outlined four points where Asian nations will need to direct their future initiatives.

First, nations must respect each civilization as unique and thereby treat one another as equals. This will greatly facilitate harmony among Asian nations, and he promised that China was ready to work for these objectives with other like-minded countries. Incidentally, of the 47 countries represented at the CDAC, there were heads of state from just four countries: the presidents of Singapore, Greece and Sri Lanka and the king of Cambodia. This raises questions as to what explains the absence of national leaders representing Arab, Indic, Islamic, Persian and other Asian civilizations.

Xi’s second point was that nations must uphold the beauty of each civilization, as each of these represent a crystallization of the gradual process of human evolution. This also underlined the constant dynamism of each of these civilizations, requiring that they are not viewed in terms of their fixations in any limited space and time. The flourishing of each of these together will make them like a garden that reflects a mosaic of multiple colors, scents, shapes and sizes.

Third, Xi alluded to how metabolism keeps human bodies healthy, and likewise strong civilizations will have to be open and inclusive to adapting and learning. However, he underlined how no changes should be coercive, imposed or one-dimensional but should encourage exchanges in a true spirit of promoting common development through the exchanges of artifacts and ideas on a daily basis. This point is also likely to become a focus of Western commentaries highlighting the perceived disjunctions between vision and reality.

Finally, civilizations have to keep up with the times, Xi said. Just as human evolution has seen one generation building on the works of the previous one, dialogue of civilizations will have to come up with equally innovative yet enduring ideas that can transcend space and time. In this, regular interactions among civilizations will help them learn from the strengths of others. He gave the example of how some of this is already happening as large number of Chinese are traveling abroad, as also foreign nationals are visiting China, which have already let loose a process of mutual learning.

In the end, Xi underlined how China has been an impeccable part of Asia, whereby its interactions with others have given it rich experience and triggered its profound pursuit of excellence, making its innovations important contributions to world history, such as paper making and printing. Beyond that, he underlined how values of amity and good neighborliness remain the key drivers of China’s foreign policy. China sees itself as part of Asia and the larger world and it aspires to initiate dialogue among civilizations whereby working together will result in a better future and shared peace and prosperity. 

No doubt, Asia has been one of the most important cradles of human civilization and is today home to more than a thousand ethnic groups and all major world religions and languages, thanks partly to the history of colonialism. The challenge is to build unity in this diversity.

Whither India?

After its absence from Xi’s two Belt and Road summits in 2017 and 2019, India was seen once again as absent from the opening session of Xi’s inaugural CDAC. However, it was very much present in the speeches of the presidents of Singapore and Sri Lanka, while the two other heads of state, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, also spoke of ideas integral to Indian civilization. Indeed, President Xi himself referred to India’s civilizational River Ganges, to its ancient book of wisdom Rigveda, and to its modern symbols such as the Taj Mahal, which he described as “invaluable assets” of humankind.

Nevertheless, Xi’s first CDAC failed to bring together leaders of nations representing Arab, Persian and Indic civilizations. Indeed, unlike the inevitable contritions of their irreconcilability about the Belt and Road Initiative, the abstract ideas of CDAC could be been an ideal platform for Beijing and New Delhi to begin bridge-building in exploring shared peace and prosperity.

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