In the US presidential election campaign both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney have made clear what sort of century they would like this to be.
"If we meet our responsibilities, then — just like the 20th century — the 21st century will be another great American Century,” Obama told the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Romney agreed. "In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. … In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world,” he told The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
Australia’s Prime Minister this week, by contrast, declared it The Asian Century.
Similarly a month before Australia’s business and government leaders attended a forum entitled “Australia in China’s Century”. No one questioned the title. Instead the overwhelming view of those in attendance was that Australia was not doing enough to adjust to the supposedly inevitable new geopolitical reality: a China-led global order. Kerry Stokes, one of Australia’s leading businessmen and a man who has never uttered a word publicly about China’s stomach-turning human rights record, nevertheless declared the small increase in the number of US Marines rotating through Darwin made him feel "physically repulsed".
It often said that we don’t need to make a choice between China and the United States – but doesn’t the rhetoric from some our business and political leaders implicitly suggest that, at least at some level, many are making a choice?
A few weeks ago I put this question to Kevin Rudd at a business lunch in Hong Kong. In previous speeches he had referred to the 21st Century as “the China Century, the Asian Century”. Challenged directly on this formulation though, he backed away from it: he said he now preferred phrases like the Asia-Pacific Century or the Pax Pacifica. Although, typically inconsistent and erratic, he now appears to have endorsed it again.
Rudd, of course, like many, was keen to repeat the line that “we do not need to make a choice between our economic ties to China and our military ties to the United States”. Long may that be the case. But is talk of the "China Century" or the "Asian Century" really consistent with that message? What would the boys in South Carolina think?
Relax, the argument goes, these are just useful slogans — a way of simply focusing attention on the economic importance of Asia and China in particular. Perhaps.
But when has there ever been a sustained period when the world’s most economically powerful country was not also the country with the world’s most powerful military? One struggles for appropriate historical parallels. Is it not then reasonable to expect that China, if it overtakes the United States as the world’s largest economy, will not in due time also become the most powerful military force?
More broadly, is it really in the interests of Australia for this to be a non-Western century? Is that not what "The Asian Century" implies? Again, it would be naive to assume that the character of the age will not change if the leading power which currently underwrites it changes.
Everyday Australians are surely not indifferent about whether the global order will be determined by a fellow Western liberal democracy like the United States or, instead, by the current party which rules in Beijing or someone else in our region. Why then this blithe talk about the China Century, the Asian Century from our business and political leaders? Rather than giddy excitement at how the tides of history have turned is not the more appropriate reaction some level of quiet reflection and unease about how far the rest of the Western world – the countries with which we have most in common – have fallen? Why would we assume our fate is ultimately going to be any different to Greece’s?
Or is talk of "The Asian Century" just spin and not intended to have real consequence? Suspicions are raised not only by the gratuitous way ALP policy has been incorporated in the document, but also because of the timing: the paper was commissioned last year out of the blue by a Prime Minister concerned her Mandarin-speaking then-foreign minister was grabbing the headlines and threatening to challenge her.
I love many aspects of Asia. There are many opportunities, but we need to be extremely clear-headed about our interests and not give confusing mixed signals in our foreign policy.
Confucius, as it happens, also detested political spin and loose use of language. In one of his most famous passages he railed against them:
"If we don’t use the correct words, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success, the political order becomes a sham. A wise ruler takes great care to ensure the words used are correct and appropriate."
I think we need to add “The Asian Century” to “misogyny” and “budget savings” as words that are used for short-term dramatic effect but, in reality, mean whatever the current government wants them to mean. Confucius would be appalled.
Dan Ryan is a lawyer who has spent over 10 years in Greater China.