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Dr Charles Edel: The Gathering Storm? How the ‘Lessons of Tragedy’ can help preserve global peace.

Dr Charles Edel is a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre.

He was the Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, advised the Secretary of State John Kerry on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific and was a Henry Luce scholar at Peking University.  Charles is the co-author of 

The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019)’ and his editorials regularly appear in The New York Times and other publications. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Charlie for a chinwag about Mike Pompeo’s visit to Australia,  ongoing US China tensions, whether we are seeing the repeat of the gathering storm of the 1930s, the brave protesters of Hong Kong, how democracy can revitalise itself, the dangerous polices of the Chinese Communist Party,  and why it’s so important that we learn from historic tragedy. It was a wide ranging chat and I hope you enjoy it!

Misha:                          Charles Edel, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Charles Edel:                 I’m great. Thanks very much for having me on Misha.

Misha:                          Pleasure’s all mine. I appreciate having you on. So for the audience now obviously have given you, lifting the lid on the white podcast. Look, you’ve got the great intro about with your bio, et cetera, that I thought would be interesting, how does a person who worked for a secretary of state Kerry foreign policy expert, how do you end up in Sydney, Australia?

Charles Edel:                 With a lot of luck, and a ton of skill by being married to the right person.

Misha:                          Right.

Charles Edel:                 So when I was working for a secretary Kerry in policy planning office of the State Department I was looking at and advising him on political insecurity matters for what we used to call the Asia Pacific. Now it’s been brought into the Indo-Pacific, but Australia was clearly a very important part of that. Remit I got to travel out here when I was in government.

Charles Edel:                 But after I left government in January of 2017, my wife who is a diplomat, said “Well it’s time we go abroad again how he feel about Australia.”

Charles Edel:                 And I said, “I feel pretty damn good.” So I’m just here as a traveling spouse and it was the best decision I ever made. Yes, clearly being married to her, but coming out here to Sydney.

Misha:                          Second best decision.

Charles Edel:                 Second best … Well, look, we say we won the jackpot twice, because it’s not only Australia, but it’s Sydney. We apologize to Canberra and Melbourne and everywhere else.

Misha:                          Now you are opening up a whole heap of how dangerous. I just lost all my three listeners in Melbourne. So anyway, so normally sort of talk about things in a more general sense, but been some news this week we’ve had a visit from Secretary of State Pompeo and I thought I’d just get your take on a few things. I mean, one of the things that caused a bit of a fuss was this question of missile deployment, foreign missile deployment by the United States. You know, there was no … In the end, prime minister Morrison ruled it out, but it took a few days. What’s your take firstly on the question of foreign missile deployment and what would that do to the balance of regional power? If Australia chose to partake in that?

Charles Edel:                 So first of all, I’m not sure I am in agreement with your assessment that Prime Minister Morrison has fundamentally ruled it out. I think the conversation in the commentary has really gotten ahead of what the quotes actually were. And so my read of it at least, is that a hot on the heels of the United States withdrawing from the INF the intermediate range nuclear forces agreement, which is only binding on the United States and the Soviet Union, then the United States and Russia, right.

Charles Edel:                 That they wouldn’t develop or deploy land-based missiles either conventional or nuclear. Right after the U.S. withdrew from this on Friday, the new secretary, the U.S. Secretary of defense, Mike Asper when he touched down here in Australia said that we are looking for more sites in Asia to potentially deploy U.S. land-based missiles. That’s the backdrop to all of this.

Charles Edel:                 And again, what I heard was then the followup questions. Well did he ask Canberra to deploy them? And no, he did not ask. And I drew a line under it is what Morrison said. To me that’s actually an ambiguous statement. But it’s true that he didn’t ask because A, those conventional assets haven’t yet been developed. The type of things that they’re talking about. But this is the beginning of a conversation about whether or not they can be developed, if they should be developed and where they are deployed for what effect.

Charles Edel:                 So sorry to give you the long backdrop, but to me the reason that you can see the U.S. withdrawing from this is if you are a Europeanist, if you’re a Russian hand, this looks disastrous, right? Because for a long time it was arms control, strategic stability between the Soviet Union. Then Russia and the U.S. Well, the argument that was made, which I think has a fair amount of weight behind it, is why would you be party to this if only one side is abiding by it only the United States because the Russians have consistently been cheating on this and on what they’re developing, what they’re deploying forward. But even if you could bring the Russians kicking and dragging into compliance a big if there, it was never binding on what happened out in Asia. And so the Chinese over the last 20 plus years have literally been developing thousands of missiles, conventional and nuclear that range across the entire region and that are specifically designed to prevent the United States and certainly deeply complicated its access to project power into the region.

Charles Edel:                 Now, one of the ways that you would offset that to have a countervailing strategy is to have land-based cruise missiles that would potentially target and range things within China. Now that sounds very scary, but it’s also how you do deterrence classically. So that is the basis of the conversation. That is where we are on. And the attempt is, it’s a good discussion to say, well, would assets in Australia matter? Do you need them closer to China? Does that simply spiral up tensions or does that in fact create deterrence by one side balancing off against other, that’s where we’re at in the conversation.

Misha:                          And so an interesting point because part of the visit from Secretary Pompeo, saying we’re here to stay, we’re friends, et cetera. In this discussion with this a hundred years of mate ship, one of the issues that’s discussed at length now in the discourse within Australia is how dependable is the U.S. guarantee via ANZUS

Misha:                          Does the guarantee mean anything in that sense? Or is something like missile foreign deployment something a way to underwrite that guarantee? Or do they or they linked at all? I mean, I think it’s an interesting question because we had Jim Mattis who was a Secretary Defense quit on the basis of the Trump administration’s treatment of allies. And it’s sort of that capriciousness. So kind of curious about the dependability of the United States as a partner in that context.

Charles Edel:                 So you’ve actually asked about 15 different questions wrapped up into one. Let me see if I can pull apart some of those with some randomized thoughts for Misha.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 So first of all, I think that what Pompeo was saying, I’m not going to try to translate it.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 Is something that I believe at least is fundamentally true, that the United States is a Pacific power. It has been for the last 230 plus years.

Charles Edel:                 If you look at America’s strategic and economic and commercial interests, they are all in this region. That is the bet that’s successive U.S. administrations have made. So I don’t think that’s going away. The United States wants to be deeply anchored in the Pacific. Second point, the United States is a Pacific power comma predicated on those in the Pacific wanting it to be one because of the tyranny of distance. Now, there are certain us territories, a certain US states in the Pacific, but to remain a balancer, an offshore balancer in the Pacific that has to be acceptable to those in the region, which again is not something that the U.S. can impose unilaterally. It has to work with allies, friends and partners.

Charles Edel:                 A third point when I say a balancer that is the United States preferred role, I would argue not to Lord it over everyone and not to have hegemonic abilities you know, but simply to make sure, and this has been consistent U.S. American grand strategy and I would say both Europe and in Asia, but over the past 200 plus years that it is a driving mode of force of America and American strategic thought that they’re … They want there to be a balance of power in Asia when there is a lop side, when there is no balance of power.

Charles Edel:                 When you have one power dominating others, that has tended to not only affect American prosperity by closing off certain parts of Asia, but also has been a direct security threat to America. And so it’s important to recognize that without the United States in Asia, there is no balance of power. So part of this absolutely as you’ve asked, is a hard power question that as the balance of power, the relative balance of power has shifted over the last 20 years because of astronomical Chinese economic growth, which they’ve then poured it into the acquisition of military assets, which have been meant to coerce neighboring states, but also make it harder for the United States to remain in and protect power into the Western Pacific. Again, this is something that the U.S. has to play catch up with along with its allies and partners. So I don’t know, I think that’s like three parts of your 15 part question.

Misha:                          Well, we’ll get through the rest. We’ll get through the remaining 12 parts. That was the taste a bit. You’ve talked to sort of the long history of this issue. Of course an author, you’ve written a book, Lessons of Tragedy. I think it’s caused a bit of buzz in Canberra. I understand, I saw a tweet about Martin Parkinson referencing that … Who’s Secretary Prime Minister in cabinet saying everyone should read these book. So it’s available in all good bookstores. You can give it a plug now if you want. But the Lessons of Tragedy, it seems, it’s kind of like a counterintuitive sort of title in that it’s sort of meant to be uplifting, but at the same time with a counterintuitive title. What do you mean by this, firstly? And then we’ll dig into, the message within it.

Charles Edel:                 So you’ve nailed the paradox within my book. First of all, that it’s a bestseller that has sold like two books, such as a lot of someone who’s trained as an academic. But the point here is I think then my coauthor Hal Brands and I wrote an optimistic if sobering book, but the title is The Lessons of Tragedy, which doesn’t look or sound particularly optimistic. And the basic argument, which we can unpack a little bit, Misha if you want, is that we have lost our ability to think tragically about how bad things could happen. And I don’t mean personal tragedies, I don’t even mean societal tragedies.

Charles Edel:                 When we say tragedy, the ones that we’re talking about in this book are full-scale bucklings of the international order, complete with great power, not competition, but war and massive human suffering unfolding globally. And because we have lost the ability to think that that is actually a possibility and one that we argue is becoming more possible by the day because we are so far from the last time this happened, 75 plus years, we’re 30 years out from the last time America and its allies had a serious geopolitical, no less ideological challenger.

Charles Edel:                 The logic of what we have done for so long seems to make less sense. And it’s making less sense just as the warning signs are beginning to flair in multiple directions. So again, I don’t think that this is simply a pessimistic book because the point is, and the reason we use the lessons of tragedy, the reason we can’t hold up the book here in the studio, but it’s got two ancient Greek warriors on the cover, is because when we think about the Athenians and amazingly creative people and amazingly powerful people. People who created the world’s first democratic system in many ways that we still honor today. A prosperous people whose empire kind of span the known world. There’s this paradox because they were seemingly obsessed with the concept of tragedy every year they made their citizens go watch those plays that you and I either read or forgot to read or never chose to read in high school-[crosstalk 00:11:12] that too.

Charles Edel:                 But the point was the Athenians even in their achievements wanted to keep council with their worst fears. And they did that by putting them up on stage, but they used it communally as a prompt to think about how bad things could spin out of control, what the repercussions of that would be and to prompt the discussions and debates within their society about how to take some profoundly unnatural actions in peacetime.

Misha:                          And so in your book you sort of talk about the consequences of forgetting, and you go through a historic take on a number of different configurations. But the question I have is what is the … Do you think we are forgetting lessons? I mean we, the most probably direct lesson of tragedy would be the World War II. A lot of that generation is now sadly passing on. Is that lesson now being forgotten and that hard work that was done to build a more peaceful world order after World War II and that sort of never again, is that now fading into obscurity? Is that your concern or is it something else?

Charles Edel:                 Yes, I mean straight up. Yes. Because again, I just said this, that the logic of what America and other democratic states did. Made sense at the time when you were directly on the heels of coming out of World War II, right? So the idea was essentially preventative, right? That you would pay some costs and now so you didn’t have to pay enormous costs later that you would tend the garden, that you would look what were happening so that you didn’t have to wait till after things had collapsed. But again, there are some pretty natural questions that have come up in American political debate, in Australian debate too, although they take on different hues in the American context, there are questions like, why should America station military hardware and men and women around the world? Why should Americans care about far away places like the South China Sea and Ukraine? Why should Americans care to open their economy to others who don’t open theirs? And they’ve come at the short, medium and sometimes even longterm costs to American workers in certain industries.

Charles Edel:                 They’re really good answers for those because it tends to be, what happens when America has not played that role, and we’ve run that experiment twice during the 20th century. But as the distance has grown and as the visceral experience seems to have drained the logic of why we have done those things. Seems to have faded from memory, and it’s fading at the worst possible time.

Misha:                          So how do you make the argument for that? I mean people talk about, it’s popular in maybe wonky circles, the liberal world order, but then it’s almost a cliche, what does it actually mean and what’s involved in defending that and how do you make that case? Because to your point, once upon a time, President Kennedy pay any price, bear any burden and doesn’t seem to have that same level of guarantee. And as a result, that lack of confidence in that U.S. guarantee democracy sort of is retreating off the back of it. So I mean, how do you talk about it in a way that makes sense to people?

Charles Edel:                 Well look, this book, it represents an experiment to see if the language of Greek tragedy might be helpful here. And I, you know, we can talk about whether it’s more helpful or less helpful because simply saying things like the international liberal order or the rules based order or the American led order convinces no one of anything. And let me point out too that I’m as guilty as anyone else on this because when I was working in government, we would say we have to do this to defend the rules based system.

Charles Edel:                 And if you explain that to anyone who doesn’t work in the narrow circles of national security, that means what exactly? And the point is that the rules based order sounds really abstract and really theoretical, but it has real world effects because when it goes away, we’re actually talking about things like preventing states from coercing other states, like making sure that their rules for freedom of navigation, like making sure that their rules that other states can interfere in other states, businesses. Like making sure that there’s a global trading order that we all play by the rules and play fairly by them. So again, if you say rules-based order, got it. It’s short hand and it encompasses a lot, but I think we have to get better in our vocabulary, all of us, about what this actually means and why it affects normal citizens.

Charles Edel:                 Because when it goes away, when you have the reversion to yes, great power war, I mean people understand what that is, but when you have the reversion to not a rules based order, but a spheres of influence world, where the biggest dogs rule the most important areas. What does that mean? Well, it means that states can only trade with certain states based on the political conditions that the big dogs set. It means that states bump up against each other militarily and things become more fraught and are less stable than they might seem. That’s the alternative to this system. So again, this book is an attempt, one attempt to say, well, what does this mean? Why is it worth preserving? And are there better ways that we can talk about? But it’s not the only attempt, and it shouldn’t be.

Misha:                          And so you’ve talked to them about great power competition, largely that’s the United States relationship with China. In your book, you sort of touch on the similarities between the 1930s where we had a great depression, rise of extremist ideologies in Europe, which then led to world war II. I mean, is that, are there parallels that you see now when you look at the global financial crosses followed by we’re seeing populism, sweeping around the world, authoritarianism returning to Europe, authoritarians being elected around the world. Are there parallels or should we be careful about drawing parallels that are too close?

Charles Edel:                 Yes to both your questions. There are parallels and we should be careful about overdrawing analogies and only looking at one set of analogies. So in terms of the 1930s, the parallels are there and they’re real. Populists on the march, democracies in disarray, revisionist powers. So powers who want to change the status of power and how much they have kind of poking, prodding, nibbling around the edges.

Charles Edel:                 Some proxy wars breaking out on the side where states tests new found technologies. Take a look at Syria for instance. Take a look in Ukraine. The analogies are real. But it’s not the only analogy that we can think about. So actually, my coauthor, Hal Brands and I from this book, we wrote another article a while ago where we asked, look, is this the darkening storm, right? That we see coming towards us. Or is this the darkness before the light? And so we looked at the 1930s, but we also looked at the 1970s where you had a similar set of withdrawal by America after the Vietnam War. A real questioning of America’s international role. You had violence on the streets more so than we see today. And the question is, is that a better analogy because of course-

Misha:                          The collapse of the Bretton Woods system.

Charles Edel:                 Well, that’s exactly right. Right, because capitalism itself looked to under strain. But of course if you look at the 70s and then you look at the 1980s, in some way American power comes roaring back because the structural drivers of longterm strength of the American economy, the demographic profile of the United States, some of the policy decisions that were taken by both the Carter administrations, it’s kind of strange to say. And the Reagan administration teed up a more assertive set of policies that kind of made sure that American power was reinvigorated. And so the truth of the matter is that both of those analogies work, but in different strokes. And so if I would argue that if the right policy choices are made to reinvest in American power to grow the kind of, the economic prosperity of America to begin to play smarter bets on the strategic sense to make sure that the American people, which you can begin to see are tipping away from, we are living in a placid environment.

Charles Edel:                 To me this augers a very different future than the 1930s, but that’s only if those policy decisions are made because if they’re not, then we could very well see it tipping to a much darker future.

Misha:                          And so, this question of the U.S. China Relationship looms large in Australia, We’ll get to I suppose how Australia navigates that. But I’m curious, what’s changed in the United site’s perception of China because it seems that it’s been what was sort of a strategic, sort of a closeness has now become a strategic rivalry and that it’s almost like the U.S. suddenly woke up to this challenge overnight. How has that relationship changed? And why?

Charles Edel:                 So it’s a great question, right? That the China debate in Australia, no less in America seems to have changed so quickly that it’s really been confounding. And why has it changed so profoundly and moved so quickly? That’s a great question.

Charles Edel:                 And I would say that obviously it’s different in Australia as it is in America, but for the U.S., the engagement thesis that if you engage, if you choose to engage with China and Chinese leaders and CCP leaders, they will norm themselves to the rules of the international system and they will grow more prosperous and more secure for it.

Misha:                          And then more democratic.

Charles Edel:                 And more democratic ultimately. So that was the basis for the past 30 years of American engagement with China. And I think what’s happened and what’s happened seemingly quickly, although it’s been building for a long time, is that there’s a new emerging consensus that, that was potentially the right bet to have placed at the time, but hasn’t held up. And the thesis, that engagement, would as you say, democratize China.

Charles Edel:                 That has clearly not happened because it’s moved in the opposite direction. They would make them a more stabilizing force. Well that hasn’t happened either. And that would make them make economic choices that would reform an open up their economy as Dung Joe Ping seem to indicate was the future direction for them. While under Xi Jinping they’ve gone in the exact opposite direction. So there’s been this question of … Look in America, you always have your hawks right, who have always said you need to hedge against China’s rise. Certainly the more troubling aspects of it. But you also had the business community and the NGO community cheering on engagement. Well over the last two to three, if not three to five years. China has lost both of those constituencies within the U.S. because of the actions that they have taken on stealing IP, on forcing tech transfers on not living up to the deals and the agreements that they agreed to play by in 2000 when they joined the World Trade Organization.

Charles Edel:                 And frankly, if you look at the repressive turn within China by the CCP under Xi Jinping, all of those advocating for more people to people ties, for more civil society groups, for more a rule of law groups, have been kicked out of China at this point. So they’re not cheering on, no one’s cheering on this hard and turn, but it’s a realization that what had worked in the past is actually not going to work in the future. So a new set of assumptions need to undergird what you as policy is moving forward.

Misha:                          I think one of the interesting questions about this, and you sort of talk to the Chinese Communist Party, it’s important I think to separate the Chinese people from their government. And I think everyone doesn’t want to be defined by the government of the country at any particular one time.

Charles Edel:                 As an American. That’s true. I can say that. It’s true.

Misha:                          So the domestic policies. So we can talk … We’ll get to the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party. But the domestic policies, I mean, what we’re seeing in Hong Kong, how troubling do you think that is for rules based order. This was a thriving liberal rule of law country well, part of China that was handed over from British colonial rule to China. What we’re seeing now is demonstrations in the streets as China’s increasingly trying to crush that liberalism there. How worried should we be about the Hong Kong situation?

Charles Edel:                 Well, two things. I think, first of all, we should be profoundly inspired by what is happening. Every day when I turn on the news, when I read, it is, you know, sometimes in democratic societies it’s hard to get people to focus, to be inspired by things.

Charles Edel:                 You have a seven point two million person population in Hong Kong. Now for basically three months, continuously out on the street protesting with protests as large as 2 million people out there.

Misha:                          It’s incredibly brave.

Charles Edel:                 It’s incredibly brave and under threat of force. Beatings by a CCP linked organizations. The threat of potential invasion. And I think it’s very clear to me the most powerful statement that I’ve read in some ways is that the Chinese artists, the dissident artists, Ai Weiwei, who was of course … For producing dissident art was in prison, was tortured, was beaten in Beijing. He wrote a fabulous op-ed in the New York Times saying that the young people who are out on the streets who have information to what China is and to what the rest of the world offers, they’ve made their choice and they made a long time ago. And we should be inspired by that because they have the information and they are saying what they want.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact, this is a test case for whether or not people choosing their own system of government can be crushed by authoritarians. So on the one hand, this is where we can get into the ins and outs of U.S. policy at some point. One of the most counterproductive statements that came out of Washington and that actually is setting the bar really, really high these days, was saying that this was a clash of civilizations. The U.S. was now embarked upon between the U.S. and China with racial overtones because the first time the U.S. has faced this against a non-Caucasian people, which is first of all, fundamentally and historically inaccurate, comma, see World War II in the Pacific. But too, as you point out, this is not about the Chinese people and Western people and they’re different. All people want the same thing. And if you don’t believe that, simply look at what’s happening in Hong Kong.

Charles Edel:                 So I wanted to take a step back from your question about how worried we should be because this is truly inspiring stuff potentially when we can’t even see people who live in an open democratic systems coming out to vote. And you have millions of people on the ground demonstrating for this. Now the flip side of your question, how worried should we should be? We should be pretty worried here. I think in unmistakable terms Beijing is making noises that they are willing to, if not crushed this in the way that they crushed a similar uprising in Tienanmen Square 30 years ago with five to 10,000 deaths at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army against their own citizens. If not quite that comma or not that yet. Well, we’ll go after protesters. We’ll use terrorism. We’ll hire the triad thugs employed by the Chinese to beat people.

Charles Edel:                 There’s a video that I was watching out this morning where you can see the Hong Kong police on the second they switch off duties switching into both black and white shirts. There’s footage of this right. So that they could both insight the protesters and then beat them down afterwards. So this is amazingly troubling, but even more so for that. And I’ll take one step back here, Misha. It’s Hong Kong has always been a special place. And the Chinese knew this. This is what they negotiated with the British in the 1994 SAS courts when the British handed it back over to them. That it would be one country but two systems, semi-autonomous region. And the point was that this was supposed to be a model that for 50 years Beijing would not interfere in or force any decisions on Hong Kong. Well, that is clearly not true.

Charles Edel:                 And the people of Taiwan are watching this extremely carefully. In fact, Tsai Ing-wen the president of Taiwan who is doing not so well in the polls leading up to this coming January’s elections, in reaction to what’s happened in Hong Kong has seen her fortunes rise. Because we now know that when the Chinese say, and again, I’ll be careful with my words, when the Chinese government says, “One country, two systems.” They don’t mean it. And so there’s a real credibility problem at this point, that no matter what Beijing and the Chinese leaderships offer, be it one country, two systems, be it peaceful conditions in a harmonious rise, be it not militarizing the south China Sea, be it joining the WTO and agreeing to play by the rules. That there’s a real credibility problem that’s emerging.

Misha:                          And so you just touched on the South China Sea. Of course, China constructed some fake islands and then promise not to militarize those to President Obama. And then of course militarize them. How concerning firstly is that annexation and what does it mean for the area? Having that annexation occur and then, and secondly, what message is China trying to send by doing that?

Charles Edel:                 They’re trying to send the message that we are the most powerful country in the region and we can intimidate and coerce other countries and that those that don’t agree to our political demands, no less our diplomatic demands, i.e, hierarchical system with China. At the middle, we talked about a sphere of influence. This is what we’re talking about are going to be leaned on very hard. And that’s been the experience of the Philippines. That’s been the experience of the Vietnamese even this week. You know, the South China Sea is the rocks, reefs, and atolls. The really, really plentiful fishing grounds that you have in there that feed, you know, like 10, 15% of some of these countries populations, the natural resources that are potentially under the ground, gas and oil that have, you know amazing wealth that they might offer to the countries around.

Charles Edel:                 This is a disputed territory, right? That six different countries lay claim to, but what the Chinese have done and said this is ours based on historical claims. When that was invalidated by an international court at The Hague. The American policy decision, I can talk about that because I was in government, was to give that a little time and space so that things might cool off and then we can kind of peacefully work with things. But that’s not what happened. That was the bet that was placed. But the Chinese lorded their claims over and have continued not only with their naval vessels, not only with their enormous coast guard vessels, but increasingly with a maritime militia, right. With thousands of fishing boats that are equipped and resourced by the central government to go out and intimidate coerce and use acts of violence against Philippine fishermen, Vietnamese fishermen and others.

Charles Edel:                 This is a really large challenge. Now what does this mean, is what you asked? That’s the message I think that it sent. That it’s ours and good luck contending with us because there’ll be violence meted out against you or the threat of violence or even economic pressure applied to your economies if you dare push back against us.

Charles Edel:                 In terms of what that means. Well, the South China Sea as enormous waterway, is in some ways the most vital one of maybe two of the most vital waterways in the world. When we think about the amount of commerce that passes through this, when we think of kind of commercial trading routes and freedom of the seas, freedom to transit through these unimpeded in international waterways has been a long standing precept and bedrock principle of that nebulous thing, that rules-based order. And so when countries have the ability to unilaterally close this down, what does that mean?

Charles Edel:                 Well, that has enormous ramifications for commodities, for insurance pricing, for global prosperity. And what we are seeing here is a test about when the Chinese move to assert their de facto control over this waterway, whether or not they’re allowed to have it or not.

Misha:                          And so what’s interesting is that China tends to prefer to deal with foreign countries on a bilateral basis, not a multilateral basis. And that you sort of talked about the coercive behavior, the bullying. What about the question of interference and the sort of more insidious ways that China tries to influence, it’s neighbors either through hacking or through the BRI, the belt and road initiative where there’s soft money coming in, in the form of loans that can’t be paid back, which China then seizes control of particular assets. I mean, how worrying is that like up against some sort of the bullying and the brute force that we’re seeing that you just described.

Charles Edel:                 It’s worrying, but not all of these things are equally worrying and we have to think about that and kind of smart ways because BRI has troubling aspects to it, but there are also attractive aspects to that. So I don’t want to paint with a blanket here but in the new report that I wrote with John Lee an Australian colleague about kind of what does the future of the U.S., Australian look like as things heat up here in this region. We said, let’s be clear that it is Beijing’s intentions to undermine the alliances, the American alliances in the region. But the way that they go about doing this takes many different forms.

Charles Edel:                 So one form is coercion, violence, force, or the threat of those. But there’s another series of tools that they have, inducements, right, that the reward is going to be well worth it even if you have to at times give up your independent political decision making.

Charles Edel:                 And alternatively, occasionally building alternative institutional arrangements some of which are very much warranted, but others of which are meant to lock in Beijing’s advantages. So there’s a number of different toolkits that I think they go about this.

Charles Edel:                 Now you asked how worried particularly on the influence and interference. And the answer is I think quite worried because for a democratic state and talking about Australia, but this applies to the United States, it applies to New Zealand, certainly and others. We are open systems. That is how we are designed. It is a source in many ways of our great strength, right? We have con testability anyone can enter into them, anyone can influence or talk to their leaders because our leaders work for us. Not the other way around. That is our strength, but it also creates some vulnerabilities because we’re not the only ones that get to talk to our leaders or influence them or pay them or put them on corporate boards or suggest that maybe there’s a different way, an alternative way of thinking about things.

Charles Edel:                 So I have to say, having been in Australia for the past two years, it’s been fascinating to watch this debate here because the debate has gotten so hot here and so quickly. And I have to say one of the ways when I go back to Washington and I’m always asked, “Well, how has the influence and interference debate playing out in Australia?” That I think that the debate has evolved in very helpful ways here, is that we have to delineate that which we find acceptable in an open society and that which we find unacceptable. And I think that the broad parameters of that strategy are being conducted and carried about pretty well in the public debate here. We can debate certain policies, but the broad contours of that debate are, look, if we’re competing in terms of brand, in terms of cultural affinity, game on. We don’t box countries out.

Charles Edel:                 If you want to make an argument for why a communist linden a state is better, go for it. If you want to make an argument for why democracies don’t deliver goods as well as again, game on. That’s okay and that’s allowable, but anything, and this is what I see in the debate here, that is coercive, corrupting or clandestine is not okay. And we’re going to legislate against that and we’re going to make sure that we prosecuted against that as well.

Misha:                          Bringing this to Australia now directly, I mean the trade war, now is heating up increasingly between the United States and China and Australia, I think rightly concerned about being caught in the crossfire there and being pulled between us security relationship with the United States and other alliances. And then of course, how important trade relationship with China and the disruption potentially caused by these trade wars. I mean, you can understand the concern that-

Charles Edel:                 Absolutely.

Misha:                          That brings to Australia. How do we have a productive discussion about this? Because often, criticism of China or Chinese government behavior is often said, “Well, don’t upset the apple cart.” And then on the other hand the United States will ask Australia to be more assertive in the South China Sea, and China’s sort of square that circle is a very, very difficult thing for policymakers. So then how do you see that as a representative or a citizen of the United States observing this debate?

Charles Edel:                 So three things that I would say in response to that. The first is, and I think you’ve rightly caged this, that the way that you often hear the debate framed here, but frankly around Southeast Asia as well, is there are two partners and their partners of choice for different things, for security and for trade.

Charles Edel:                 But of course, trade is not prosperity. It’s one component, part of it and a very important part. But so too is investment. So too, is job creation and again, I actually think it’s, it’s a very character black and white debate here that yes Australia has enormous trade flows with China its most important trading partner, 33% of your outbound exports go up north to Beijing when they’re let off the docks and into the Chinese markets. That’s a big if. But again, the United States is the number one investor into Australia in terms of foreign direct investment. And by the way, that’s also true of Australian commerce into America. And there’s more investment put into America by Australian firms than there is into China, into the Middle East or then into Latin America. When we think of job creation, when we think of aggregate prosperity and taxable dollars put into your economy and for your government, there’s no comparison.

Charles Edel:                 I mean the amount of FDI that the U.S. puts in and by the U.S., I simply mean the private sector is out weights China’s by a degree of 10 to 1. Now, I’m not making the argument that therefore choose A or B, you want to choose both to some degree, but it’s a false dichotomy in some ways to say, it trade equals prosperity because that’s not actually what the real numbers look like.

Charles Edel:                 Second Point if you don’t mind me. I’m getting rolling here.

Misha:                          Keep going.

Charles Edel:                 Is that in this report that John and I put out, we say that the economic edge of this debate is going to evolve because of changing circumstances, but it’s going to evolve probably differently in the United States as opposed to Australia. So in the United States, the word on the cusp of everyone’s lips is decoupling whether or not the United States and the Chinese economies are going to pull apart, dis-aggregate because they’re deeply intertwined.

Charles Edel:                 And of course then the next question is, well, are we talking about smart decoupling or dumb decoupling? And we’re at the beginning of that debate, but I actually think it’s almost inevitable that, that’s going to happen to some degree because there are certain sectors that the United States and China frankly needs to and wants to protect.

Misha:                          Tech for example, telecommunications.

Charles Edel:                 Exactly, that’s right. I mean, [crosstalk 00:39:25] if you ask anyone in China, I lived in China for a number of years, would you allow the United States or would you allow an Australian Telco to build your internet architecture? You couldn’t even get those words out before you got laughed out of the room because the answer is obviously no. Which then begs the question, why is this debate happening here? Although frankly, this debate is happening here only to a minor degree because Australia was the first mover on the Huawei question.

Charles Edel:                 But again, if that’s the question and the debate in America, the question and the debate in Australia, I imagine needs to be a different set of questions. It’s how do you smartly diversify your trading partners? You’re not going to stop trading with China. You might want to think about which things you’re selling to them and which things you’re allowing them to invest in. Critical infrastructure. We talked about dual use technologies or another, but in terms of agricultural food stuffs, in terms of wine, those are things that you will want to continue selling. And the question though becomes if Australia is the most developed economy, is the country of advanced economies that is most dependent on the China market of all advanced democracies in the world. That has the potential to create real political leverage where at least a case of the slows on other issues like security that we were talking about.

Charles Edel:                 So the question becomes not selling them things, but how do you decrease that political leverage? And the answer is very obvious. It’s diversification of trading partners. In fact, you’re a government commissioned, Pierre [Vargace 00:40:58] to write a report on India. Yeah, that’s like a 400 page report with 120 recommendations about how Australia and India grow links. But it’s not only India, right? I mean his report was only India. The answer is Southeast Asia as well, which we know is going to represent kind of the hot emerging market in the years to come. So the diversification question should be one that should be sought not only by business people, but also by the government. And frankly, the political risk conversation in the corporate sector here, is immature because all the time businesses do you know, cost benefit analysis, do risk allocations but very infrequently are political factors put in terms of those.

Charles Edel:                 But if we look at what’s happened even over the last six months with coal, with wheat, with wine staying on the docks. Not for any real official reason, but just because I don’t know what exactly, because the Chinese government is displeased, that Australia’s decided to stand up for its own sovereign interests.

Misha:                          The Canadians had a similar experience with canola oil.

Charles Edel:                 And continue to have one. That is a decision that needs to be factored into corporate decisions because it’s a risk factor. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but you have to weight things perhaps differently than they’ve been weighted before.

Charles Edel:                 The final point I would make is how can we assert ourselves? Well you don’t do it dumbly. It’s actually called diplomacy right. Because when we assert our interests, there’s this kind of false narrative, this false binary that China reacts in one of two ways, thermo nuclear war or nothing.

Charles Edel:                 And that’s just false.

Misha:                          Right.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact, if we look at smaller states and how they have reacted to instances of Chinese economic coercion, South Korea for instance we can look at India, not a smaller state particularly, but Vietnam certainly. In all those instances you did not have war. We can go through the examples of them, but the point is when they pushed back, it reframed the terms of the debate more conducive to their interests. And in some places like in South Korea, like with Vietnam, Beijing had to not admit mistakes, but reset the frame of the debate.

Misha:                          And what about the role of multilaterals? I mean that with countries working together, as I said, China prefers that bilateral deal. We’ll deal with the on one-on-one basis. And they tried to pick countries off one-on-one. Can Australia work more closely with regional partners on a multilateral basis to deal with or make the Chinese government play by the rules, of the rules base order, if we can fall back on that cliche.

Charles Edel:                 Yes. They can, I mean, there’s great strength in numbers, but only if those numbers are brought to bear. And there’s another false narrative that I would say is out there that, China doesn’t care about this stuff. I mean, look at its national power. What does it matter if it gets criticized, and on certain aspects that’s true. But on other aspects, Chinese government goes through great lengths to avoid being criticized, to avoid being seen as the bully. If you look at the politics, for instance, of ASEAN on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 10 members. The preferred approach is always to play it off as you have said one on one, because it’s easier to pick members off ASEAN as a consensus based group. So if you want to make sure that they have no joint statements, that the South China Sea needs to remain open and is not China’s. All you have to do is pick off Cambodia, which is very easy to do these days or Lau.

Charles Edel:                 But you can also look at the enormous lengths that the Chinese have gone to scuttle individual statements or anything that has a whiff of collective resolve. So when we move the gaze away from ASEAN, but about Australia’s relationships with its neighbors, with Japan, with ASEAN, with India, the more that can be done collectively not to escalate tensions, but simply to say, these are the rules that we’re willing to engage on. The more effect I would argue that it probably has.

Misha:                          And so, one of the things I wanted to get your perspective on is this question of a democracy. Democracy is under … Probably the first time it’s been challenged in a generation as certainly since the supposed end of history with the collapse of Soviet Union, is democracy is still the best system because Vladimir Putin’s basically said, “It looks all over, dust your hands, see you later.”

Misha:                          I mean, firstly, is that a legitimate position and why can he say something like that? And then secondly, has the U.S. … Does the U.S. still believe in the projection of democracy around the world?

Charles Edel:                 So first part of the question is why did Vladimir Putin make this statement? And was he right? So like someone who’s trying to murder the system, you shouldn’t really believe them and why they take it. However, why did he say, well, because-

Misha:                          Well it’s not something he could have said, I think 10 years ago with any level credibility.

Charles Edel:                 Right, because it has more credibility now. That the democratic system … Look, democracies have always been predicated on two things, right? The Winston Churchill quote, that it’s the best system of government except for all the rest or the reverse of that rather. Right?

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 But also, and fundamentally, democratic systems are based on, it delivers the best type of goods for its citizens, and responsive to their needs. And we can say that democracy, liberal democracy, liberal capitalistic democracy has had some real growing pains and real stumbling problems, particularly over the last 10 years. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it doesn’t look like a perfect model. When we look at globalization and what it has delivered, enormous goods, right? Globalization took millions of people, billions of people if we look at China’s case out of poverty, but also affected people unevenly. And particularly in advanced Western democracies, left a lot of people behind. So are there problems with it? Yes. The best part of our system is that it has the ability to self correct and honestly self-correct, but we’re not there yet.

Charles Edel:                 And that’s why I think, why you see so much populism and kind of push back against this. So is there some truth in what Putin has said that the system is underdressed? Yes. I mean if you just looked at the numbers, right. The number of democracies in the world hit a high point in 2000 and I believe six and has been on an ebb tide ever since.

Charles Edel:                 Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian states has increased, so we are really seeing a contest of systems emerge about what is better, able to offer prosperity to people around the world and there’s one system that makes an argument that is simply political control and order and non democratic choice that will lead its way to prosperity and the other stuff doesn’t matter quite as much. I would say kind of circling back to Hong Kong, I’m not sure if that argument has a lot of staying power because even when people become prosperous, they don’t stop caring about that other stuff. This is why Hong Kong is such a great challenge. No less Taiwan for Beijing because it puts lie I think to the fundamental argument that they have.

Charles Edel:                 But to say that democracy is great and then all of our citizens are being taken care of, I think is fundamentally to misread what’s happened around the world and in Western elections over the last 5 to 10 years.

Misha:                          I think what’s interesting there, and you did right off and say, it wasn’t as though people got to 1989 and then they read a bunch of Jeffersonian literature and read a bunch of Marx’s and said, “You know what, Jefferson’s a much more beautiful argument.” They looked at was delivering for people and a communist Soviet Union. Russia at the time was not able to deliver for people on a living standard basis, so people yearn for that. What’s interesting in this last decade, is essentially plan … There’s been this enormous prosperity in this sort of autocratic capitalists approach to the world that has been led by China.

Misha:                          And so young people, I mean when you look a lot of the polling, increasingly young people are sort of questioning whether or not democracy is the best system up against other systems and how worried should we be about that? Or is that just young people being contrarian with?

Charles Edel:                 Well, so it’s a little bit of both. We should be concerned and as young people being contrarian, but it’s also young people being offered a false choice in those polls. And then an abstract question, do you like democracy or not? How necessary is it? Look, when you look at those polls that have come out in Australia, the Lowy institutes, but a really good polling numbers on this in America, you’ve seen a lot of this poll into all around the Western world. The numbers are to the question, how important, how necessary do you find it as a young person? If we slice and dice the demographics. How important is it that you live in a democracy? And the answer is mah. It’s kind of important, but it’s not the most important thing.

Charles Edel:                 And the numbers are falling too. Now that is deeply disturbing to a lot of people, particularly to older people. But I actually think that with this one, I’m not as pessimistic as the polls might put out there. Although on the policy discussions I have bigger questions so I’ll return to that in a second.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 But if you actually spend any time talking with young people, high school students, university students, this is a great virtue of my job because I lecture to university students. I get to talk with high school students all the time. And if you don’t ask them, how important is democracy to you? But if you rather say, how important is it that you live in a place that respects individuals? How important is it that you live in a country where human rights, protection and promotion is important? How important is it that you don’t have your own government scanning your face, deciding every action that you make or don’t make fits into a credit system and the government that gets to decide if you’re a trustworthy or an untrustworthy citizen. How important is that when you go to university that you get to learn new ideas and when you find things that are appealing or unappealing and you protest them peacefully, that you’re not bulldozed by violence?

Charles Edel:                 Well, the conversation shifts really markedly and very quickly.

Misha:                          From the abstract to the practical.

Charles Edel:                 From the abstract to the practical. And when you ask young people, how important is it that you live in a society like that? It’s not like 50% and falling, it’s more like 90% and rising.

Misha:                          I mean, people, it’s often politicians mixed into the question about democracy and what they see on TV and how politicians, act versus the actual system itself compared to what an autocratic system truly is, or is there an element of that do you think?

Charles Edel:                 Well, there is a little bit of that. But it’s also because, you know, I think we’ve gotten lazy that you kind of referenced 1989 you know, with Jeffersonian versus Marx’s thinking, but really it was Francis Fukuyama who wrote the end of history, i.e. history was over, there was no more argument in history. Liberal Democratic capitalism had one game over argument over. And because the Soviet Union had gone the way of the Dodo at that time or the Tasmanian Tiger right there, extinct too.

Misha:                          Oh, local reference, well done, bonus points.

Charles Edel:                 Thank you. I love Tasmania. I can make that reference now. But because they had gone that way, democracy didn’t have to compete against anything else. It didn’t have to make the arguments. So I actually think that our political leaders have gotten pretty lazy about talking about why democracy matters in practical terms, why it’s better than the alternative because there is an alternative and it is back with a lot of strength behind it.

Misha:                          Well, it’s interesting to touch on that. So what’s troubling I think as well is not just the challenge to the liberal world order, to democracies, but the increasing coordination we’re seeing by autocratic nations. Can you expand a little bit about that level coordination that we’re seeing between countries like Russia and China, but in the Middle East as well with Iran and what the challenge that represents. And secondly, should democracies be working closer together to offset that?

Charles Edel:                 There is growing coordination, if not out, and out, alliances between the world’s largest autocracies with the intent of undermining the system and growing both of their power and weakening democratic powers. And is there more that democracies can do to coordinate their actions? Yes, absolutely. It’s necessary. But the question becomes what will prompt us to do so? Because again, just looking at the numbers if you begin to look at you know, you’ll often hear that America’s in decline and some of our leaders statements will make you think that that is invariably coming true.

Charles Edel:                 However, if you look at it, and this goes back to our conversation about the 30s versus the 70s, if you look at aggregate U.S. GDP in 2016, it was about 22% of world output. That is not that far off the high point post war in the early 1970s. When you add in partner and allies, we’re talking about more than 60% of global GDP and military outlays that is far greater than any competitor has.

Charles Edel:                 The question is not necessarily one of resources. It’s willingness to use them. And again, a reason that how, and I decided to write this book is because for a democratic society, which always has more than just security on its mind, it has to, it has to be responsive to its own citizens. To get it to act in ways that can forestall things getting worse, particularly in the security and prosperity realms, but also in the values realm. What will prompt them to do so? And if you look at history, the answers are not great. Because it’s generally after something horrible happens. Generally after something blows up that we decide, whoa, we weren’t paying enough attention. It’s time to ramp up big time. And I simply say, as a historian, no less someone who’s interested in policy and occasionally works on it. That cannot be a good enough answer because we can’t wait for things to get horrible in order to develop the right set of policies.

Charles Edel:                 So the question becomes, what can we as democratic societies do on our own, but collectively together that stop the trends that we see happening in the world right now.

Misha:                          And in your book you talked about these historic political analysis and that, it had said gets discussed a bit, the Thucydides Trap. The one great power being displaced by a new great power, often or inevitably it’s a trap. The trap being the-

Charles Edel:                 It’s a trap Jim. No, sorry, go on.

Misha:                          Inevitably, those two great powers go to war and there are numerous examples in history of that happening. When we look at it in the U.S., China context is very easy to say, “Well that’s the inevitable conflict there.” But are you an optimist or pessimist about whether or not that can be avoided? Can we avoid the trap and how do we avoid the trap?

Charles Edel:                 Yeah, yeah we can avoid the trap based on decisions that we make, but it’s not clear that we’ll make those decisions. But let me step back and put my cards on the table because we have to kind of dig into what assumptions and am I carrying into this. So if you bring the assumption to bear that rising powers jostling for their place in the sun are inevitably going to create some friction. And anything that kind of the status quo power does will inevitably create spirals of escalation. That they do something you push back and voila, you were in World War III with nuclear weapons, right? That is one frame of reference. That is the Thucydides Trap. That is the World War I frame of reference. Then the policy outcome is pretty clear. Don’t push back because who the hell wants to be a World War III?

Charles Edel:                 However, if you take a different analogy that pushing back doesn’t necessarily, as long as it has done smartly, creates spirals of escalation but rather deters problematic behavior and stabilizes very problematic situations, albeit in ways that feel uncomfortable, i.e. the Cold War. That’s a different set of policy outcomes that you’re lied to. So again, this is the situation we find ourselves in is different than both of those historical analogies, but depends which way you read things. And if you read pushback as inherently destabilizing or one that feels uneasy, none of us like the world that we’re moving towards, but it also can stabilize uneasy situations. That aligns your policy choices.

Misha:                          Well, this has been very illuminating. Now Charles, I couldn’t talk about this all day, but you’ve got a job to do kids to teach. I’ve got … I can’t entertain my five listeners forever but-

Charles Edel:                 Well, I think I knocked it down to three. Right, because we knocked Melbourne out of the conversation.

Misha:                          Well, that’s right. So that’s, right. So you’ve got two sales, I’ve got two listeners. We’re very popular bunch. There’s four between us, but I’m now, heavy duty conversation. Now we’re going to lighten it up with my super fun, happy, amazing question. Super non clunky segue into a barbecue, Charlie Edel’s three Aussie’s alive or dead who’s coming and why?

Charles Edel:                 Very easy choices. One, Ned Kelly and or Peter Carey, because I love his, a historical fiction version. The True History of the Kelly Gang. Just a great read.

Misha:                          Okay.

Charles Edel:                 Two-

Misha:                          Isn’t it Kelly in the suit or not?

Charles Edel:                 The armored suit?

Misha:                          Yeah.

Charles Edel:                 Well I hope if he is, he’s not standing too close to the barbecue that won’t work out so well for him. Two, because we’ve been having this high-minded abstract talk, which I hope is not only abstract, we have to invite Hedly Bull, academic, Aussie born, lived in England who talked about issues of order versus issues of disorder. That all the time the international environment is these two forces contending and that the rules, those who seek to create an order prompt rules and discussions.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact he’s informed a lot of my own thinking. So a great Aussie, who I’d love to have more conversations with over a sizzle.

Charles Edel:                 And then third, without a doubt, Rebel Wilson, because she has to be in any conversation I think. And by any conversation, I mean I would be quiet and just listen to what it is that she had to say.

Misha:                          So we’ve got, well an outlaw, a comedian and an academic and a barbecue.

Charles Edel:                 Yeah. A fill in the blank on the joke, I guess.

Misha:                          Well that would be one to be in attendance at. But thank you so much for joining us and Charlie, and I hope everyone enjoyed the episode.

Charles Edel:                 Well, thanks very much for having me on Misha. I appreciate it.

Misha:                          Cheers, mate.

 

Chris Bowen: Reasons to be optimistic and the future of progressive politics and liberalism

Chris Bowen is the Member for McMahon in the Australian Parliament. In his time in public office, he has served as Treasurer, Minister for Human Services, Minister for Immigration, Minister for Financial Services, Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy.

As the author of the books of ‘Hearts and Minds’ and ‘The Money Men’, Chris is a noted public policy thinker and expert. 

Chris joined Misha Zelinsky for a chinwag about the future of democracy and liberalism including the threat to democracy posed by inequality, the role of faith in politics, how Australia can properly engage with India and Indonesia, what the future holds on Australia’s China policy, why we should be much more worried about global debt and how progressive parties can rebuild trust with the public. 

Misha Zelinsky:             Chris Bowen, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Chris Bowen:                Long time listener, first time caller. Good to be here Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’d be one of our very, very few listeners that have become calls so it’s very pleased to hear that.

Chris Bowen:                I did get on early, so it’s a great listen. Well done.

Misha Zelinsky:             Thank you so much for that plug, we’ll make sure that we’re putting that out in the socials. There’s so many places we could start obviously, but one of the places I thought we could start was interesting recently leading into the G20 we had Vladimir Putin come out and say that liberalism was dead, is a dead project, that the West effectively had lost the post Cold War era. I mean, what do you make of those comments firstly, and secondly what does it say about the state of the world given that perhaps ten years ago that would have been laughed off, now it’s a serious point?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s a good way if putting it. I’m more optimistic than that, I think we have to be more optimistic than that. We can’t accept that as being the statement of fact, we have to fight back against that. But the fact that a world leader could even say that with some credibility tells you where the debate’s at. The one thing we know is that the Francis Fukuyama theorem of, “History has ended, liberalism has won”, is not how things have panned out. For a long time we thought he was wrong because Islamic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism was a challenge to liberalism and that remains an issue.

Chris Bowen:                But also, authoritarianism has become a much more accepted framework in many countries of the world to some degree or other, whether we’re looking at what’s happening in Turkey or Hungary, but the United States is on a different part of the continuum. The trend is all to populism/some form of authoritarianism and at the other end of the spectrum, whereas say twenty years ago we might have been having the discussion, will the rise of China and the economic growth of China lead to China becoming a liberal democracy? Well in fact, if anything we’ve seen Chinese authoritarianism increase, not become more of a liberal country.

Chris Bowen:                The fact that we’re having this conversation tells you that the world’s not in a great state, but I’m an optimist about liberalism. Some people question whether democracy is under challenge.

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ll get to that.

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                And that’s a legitimate question to be asking, and then I guess to subsidize smaller liberalism under challenge, or liberalism as a world view in the international context. It is under challenge, but I think we have to think of ways to ensure that it’s not only survives, but prospers.

Misha Zelinsky:             So what are the reasons to be optimistic about it? It’s so obvious to give all the counter examples about the insurgence of autocracies and all the crisis of confidence in the liberal democratic order. So, what are the reasons to be optimistic? Very easy to point out the problems.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. Well, just looking around the world a lot of the defeats of, if you like, liberalism or, in some senses, progressivism, have been narrow. Trump didn’t actually win by much, as you know he lost the popular vote, and actually a swing of not many votes in key states would’ve changed that result.

Chris Bowen:                UK politics is highly contested. We may or may not get into the inner workings of the British labor party.

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ve got a bit of time! Cover all sorts.

Chris Bowen:                The two party system is pretty closely contested in the United Kingdom. You’d be a brave person to predict the result of the next UK election. Macron in France now, we all have our criticisms of Macron perhaps, but he’s a force of centralist liberalism, maybe slightly to the left. Trudeau in Canada, he’s had a few challenges, but he’s got one good election win and will probably win another election in the next twelve months. So, you can look at those places, and of course New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern didn’t win an election, she won a parliamentary majority, but I don’t think there’s much question that she’d win an election now.

Chris Bowen:                So there are some bright spots. And, the fact that the forces of progressivism are being challenged means that we do need to think about what our answers are. I think we are doing that, thinking around the world, parties of the center left, to some degree of success or otherwise. Or at least asking the right questions. And I’m an optimist because we have to be, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, that we will come up with the right answers.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things that troubles me, is this intersection of economics and politics, right?

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the consistent things everyone talks about from a public policy point of view is this level of inequality that you’re seeing, both within and between countries. Can you have an increase in equality, where people feel more disenfranchised, particularly when you look at the pattern of that inequality where it seems to be regional areas, where regions that are distressed tend to become less hopeful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Are democracies and healthy democracies consistent with inequality, or do we have to address one to address the other, where you’re addressing them isolation?

Chris Bowen:                Well we should address inequality, one, because it’s the right thing to do, and two, because it is leading to this populism. You can look at inequality through any number of frameworks or spectra, but I think the most useful one for this conversation is the one that you’ve given a nod to, pointed to, which is geographic inequality. If you look at this challenge to the forces of the center left or liberalism, progressivism, what ever you want to call it around the world, it is very much a geographic divide.

Chris Bowen:                Brexit one outside London. If it was up to the people of London, they’d be very firmly in the EU. Trump one in rural America. Not in the cities. If it was up to the people of California or New York, Hilary Clinton would be preparing for re-election. Macron won in Paris. He lost in the region of France to Le Pen. And, if you look here to our recent kick the guts election defeat, we had swings to us in the city, in wealthy areas, in both safe labor and safe liberal seats, the inner ring. We had swings against us in outer metropolitan areas, particularly in Sydney, which we weren’t necessarily expecting. And big swings against us in regional particularly in Queensland.

Chris Bowen:                Now these are people, in my view, who say in the Australian context, twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, give me break. I don’t see it. My kid can’t get a job, I’m maybe forty-five and I’ve been unemployed for two years. You go down the main street of Mchale or Gladstone, or Gladstone’s a bit different, it’s going better than some regional centers. Mchale, or Bowen, or Rocky, and things aren’t feeling too great. They’re saying what about us? And the straight, center-right message of, “We care about inequality”, has not appealed to them. It’s our challenge to make sure that we do put it in ways which does appeal to them, when we ensure that the product is the right one for them, and two we are expressing it in a way which speaks to their views about inequality. Because they are, if you like, victims of inequality, they are falling behind in our society.

Chris Bowen:                Obviously our message of, “We care about you and care about inequality.”, has not resonated.

Misha Zelinsky:             It is a bizarre thing when you look at the traditional, I guess, areas that social democrats care about globally, and the regional inequality that we’re seeing somehow, whether it’s message, whether it’s policies. I think there’s an element of attitude and tone about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             But, how is it that we’re just misaligned, we’re not connecting somehow?

Chris Bowen:                This is not a new challenge in some ways, it’s more intense and more acute than it has been. But it is also not a new challenge. Do you remember fifteen or twenty years ago Thomas Frank wrote the book, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”, which was about this very matter. In some countries it was published as, “What’s the matter with America?”, but the real title is, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”. And he spoke about these issues, the people of Kansas, Alabama and Arkansas, and those states are doing it tough or falling behind, subject to inequality, have been left behind by the elites. And the democrats have all these wonderful policies to deal with that, and they are turning up on the first Tuesday of November and letting some old Republican. What is going on here?

Chris Bowen:                And he put it down to cultural issues, lack of empathy with the cultural concerns of people in those states. And I think there is still something to that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you raise that recently, talking about whether or not people of religious faiths feel at home.

Chris Bowen:                Yes. Which is, I think, an existential problem.

Chris Bowen:                If you look at the United States, the single biggest indicator of voting intension is faith. Not income, not ethnicity, not geography, it’s faith. What ever faith. Even if you’re of Islamic faith, that’s the best indicator that you’ll vote Republican, if you are of very solid faith.

Chris Bowen:                Again, I think we have a real challenge here in Australia about this. Now, we’re a progressive party of course, we believe in equality. I voted for major equality, I’m very proud of that. But, we need to ensure we are also having lines of communication to people who are economically progressive, and who believe in social justice. And some instances believe in social justice because of the ethos that they were brought up in, in their church.

Chris Bowen:                But also have some concerns about their social conservative. Now, I’m not suggesting for one second we need to not continue with the progressive project, but I am suggesting that we need to think about how we talk to people of faith, how we bring people of faith with us, ensure that they know they have a role in our party, that they can be treated with respect by the party, and have their views considered, both within the party processes and by the party in government. And we have not done that. To be frank, we have neglected that as a movement and as a party, and we have paid a price.

Chris Bowen:                I think a big part of the swing against us in western Sydney and probably in some regional areas, was the concern of people of faith, that the labor party has lost touch with their concerns and their issues going forward. People who say to me, “We just want to know that you’ll listen to us. We may have voted against marriage equality, but we accept the result, but we want to know we’ve got a place at the table going forward.” I think, collectively, the party and parties of the left, need to ensure that there is a role for people of faith. Again, many faiths teach social-

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                Social justice.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s not antithetical-

Chris Bowen:                No, that’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:             The tenants of religion are in no way an antithetical decision. Obviously, love thy neighbor, looking after one another, there’s plenty within the-

Chris Bowen:                Quite the contrary! Quite the contrary!

Chris Bowen:                I mean, in most religions as you say, preach love, and respect, and tolerance and understanding, and justice. We might use different words, but it’s what we’re about as well. But we’ve lost the connection with people of faith, and we must get it back. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I regard it as an existential crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s that. Certainly putting it at a high level.

Misha Zelinsky:             This narrowness, how do progressives, and this a global problem. You look at it globally, rightfully identified progressive parties, social democratic parties have either been marginalized or disappeared in some countries, you’ve got France.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah. Well there’s the French socialist party effectively no longer exists.

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, as you say, the existential threat, Macron’s essentially co-opted that group and other parts of the center-right. Globally this retreat for the regions, this retreat from the suburbs even, this retreat from, as you say, more conservative social values, how do, rather than narrowing, how do progressive parties broaden? How do we become broader?

Chris Bowen:                Well, there’s no one thing Misha. It’s got to be part of a tableau, an embroidery of our party. It’s as simple as making sure that we’re in touch. We’re in touch with the regions, we’re in touch with people of faith, we’re in touch with people who maybe at least open to the argument that’s put by the populists, that the answer to your problem is less trade and less immigration. Now you know, and I know that’s the antithesis of what the answer is. We have to say to people who have been spoken to, in the Australian context, by one nation or even Parma, or the liberals in their own cunning way, to say look, the answer to your problem is less immigration, less trade. We have to show that the answer is not less immigration, less trade. But, we cannot dismiss the question or the issues that we come back to, moving our faith back down to the regions.

Chris Bowen:                If you’re in Mchale, or Bowen, or Townsville, and the economies not doing too great, we cannot say you’re wrong. We have to say, you’re right! But the answer to your problem is not Pauline Hanson. We have the answers. Now the essential key to those we have to have the answers, otherwise we can’t give it.

Misha Zelinsky:             But we do tend to jump to say, you don’t get it, you don’t understand the data, you don’t understand the policies.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, what are you talking about? We’ve got twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, and unemployment’s low, and interests rate.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the macro numbers don’t tell the micro story, right?

Chris Bowen:                They certainly do not.

Chris Bowen:                When I was shadow treasurer I used to say this, I used to do a lot of board rooms with the countries most senior business people. I used to say to them respectively, because they used to say to me, “Oh well, the labor party is wrong about this and that, and everything’s going-”, well I said, “You don’t get it. With respect, you don’t get it.”

Chris Bowen:                Things look good from here. We’re sitting in a board room in Sydney, we can see the Opera house, the Harbor bridge, the unemployment rate in Sydney has a three in front of it, or sometimes a two in front. There’s no vacant shops, everything’s bustling. Come out with me. Come to Mchale and walk down the main street. Come to Emerald! Inland Queensland. Things don’t feel too great out there. We collectively, not just political parties, but the establishment, if you want to use that word, economic establishment, the political establishment, the business community, the elites, need to get it.

Chris Bowen:                Far too much, collectively, we haven’t got it. Or, haven’t communicated that we do get it anywhere near effectively enough. The door has opened for that Charlottetown [clark parma 00:15:42] and the populist Pauline Hanson, and we have to close the door by being more responsive to the concerns of people who say this twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, I think, is bullshit.

Misha Zelinsky:             Quote that!

Chris Bowen:                You don’t beep out on this podcast?

Misha Zelinsky:             No, no, that’s all right. I’m not too sure too many kids are interested in geopolitics and social democracy globally. But for those that do, close your ears.

Misha Zelinsky:             So look, that was really interesting. One of the things I was keen to talk to you about, and we started with Putin and liberalism, and we’ve talked about social democracy, but the question of liberalism, the United States being the typical guarantor. They’ve underpinned the global system-

Chris Bowen:                Shining hope of the world!

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Chris Bowen:                Last hope.

Misha Zelinsky:             This trade war with China, they’ve now appeared to be retreating from their own system. Firstly, what do you make of that? And secondly, what’s the implications of that war between the US and China for Australia?

Chris Bowen:                The trade war will be sorted. There will be a truce. The only question is when and how? Why do I say that? The alternative is unthinkable, because the only alternative to the trade war being sorted is in effect decoupling. Saying the United States and China will decouple from each other and not have tradings.

Misha Zelinsky:             And some people argue for that, increasing national security grounds.

Chris Bowen:                Well that’s about unthinkable as men and women decoupling. Because we need each other, right?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                China and the United States need each other. And the idea that you could have a two polers in the world, two poles of the world economy with very little to do with each other is just… The world doesn’t work like that. The production chains don’t work like that. Half the things that are made in America, the components are made in China. And that’s not about to change.

Chris Bowen:                Now, there’s an easy way and a hard way, and that’s the only question open to president Trump and president Xi is, do we take the easy way or the hard way? I hope very much they take the easy way. But even if they take the hard way, either they or their successors will sort it. It’s true to say that in the United States this is not just Trump, it is a broader concern in the political elite, including the Democrats, that China has not been playing fair in the world trading system. And it’s also true to say that in some elements they have poy. President Trump is not always wrong. And he does have some legitimate concerns about the world trading system and China’s place in it. But the trade war is very much not the answer.

Chris Bowen:                Now I’m hopeful that they’ll choose the easy way. Either they will choose the easy way, or if there’s a new president next year, but I hope it doesn’t take that long because the implications of a worsening trade war, I mean, you don’t really need us to spend much time on, because they’re pretty self evident. They’re pretty bad. They’re pretty bad for the world economy, they’re pretty bad for us as a trading nation, pretty bad for our region. Even more than the direct implications of the trade war, because you can do all the modeling, and you’ll have this impact, this flow into Australia, and all that’s legitimate. But, I think the bigger problem is just the blow to confidence around the world, just the uncertainty created by the trade war, and the general blow to confidence is terrible for a country like Australia.

Chris Bowen:                I tend to be on the more optimistic side of what will happen in the world economy and the political system, but I’m also a nice, open realist as to the implications if I’m wrong, and that they choose the hard way, and it’s not pleasant.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, it’s interesting, because pretty much the only by-part [inaudible 00:19:34] that you can find in Washington is the attitude to China. The peace arises, you described before, China’s getting rich, China’s going to get democratic, peace will now be, perhaps… Has not eventuated-

Chris Bowen:                Well it has been peaceful, but there’s been no move towards greater democratic freedom

Misha Zelinsky:             And so we’re seeing increasing authoritarianism. The question, to your point, it’s unthinkable to decouple economically, but there’s a real push to decouple on the national security elements. How do those two things sit together when you consider the techno nationalism around Warway, and the security of data and that element of the debate? And then all the economic points that you’ve made. They seem to be completely pulling against one another.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, it’s really hard. I know I don’t underestimate the difficulty for any government in the western world. I think the liberal national government here has made mistakes in that space over the last six years, but I’m not overly critical of them because I don’t underestimate the size of the task, or the degree of complexity of the task in navigating that. Now what you need is a national strategy. The problem Misha, I think you’re really making this point, is that in many countries, including Australia, the economic establishment and the national security establishment shout at each other.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                And the national security establishment shouts, “China’s terrible, have nothing to do with them.” And the economic establishment shouts, “They’re our largest trading partner, we’re buggered without them!”. Both sides have some evidence to their cases, the trouble is that far to often, it’s just the shouting. In the cabinet, and I’ve served in both, there’s the Expenditure Review Committee, which is in effect the Economic Policy Committee, and you’ve got the National Security Committee, the cabinet, I’ve served on both for some years. What you really need is probably a National Strategy Committee. To get the intelligence agencies and the economic agencies in the same room and say, what are we going to do about it then? How are we going to navigate this?

Chris Bowen:                Some countries are doing it differently, but we’re all faced with similar conundrums. Prime minister Trudeau is dealing with this very acutely in Canada. Prime minister May, they’ve dealt with their own Warway issue in a different way to many other countries. And they’ve obviously weighed up the evidence. And you know I’ve seen the briefings, not the classified briefings, but I’ve seen the public briefings about Warway, and there are some issues, and our position is the same as the government on Warway.

Chris Bowen:                These are tough issues and we’ve got to stop shouting at each other about them.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things, to your point about China is the oscillating between greed and fear, but I think actually we don’t oscillate that much, as you say, to people that are national security minded tend to be hawkish and people who are economically minded tend to be doveish.

Chris Bowen:                We have tribes.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Hilary Clinton said you can’t argue with your banker. I think we have situation where it’s difficult to argue with our best customer. China touches up a little around coal exports, I mean, certainly the coal or oil type situation with the Canadians, as you alluded to there. But is there a case on national security grounds, or even just on a diversification basis, for Australia to build deeper links into other parts of the regional, global economy?

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely. This is the key question. I think you correctly put Misha. We can talk about China and how we handle it, and obviously I have views about that, but what we’re not doing as a country is deepening our links to the region. More broadly, the Indo-Pacific. Every country is important, but the two key countries for us are India and Indonesia. We’re doing a little more in India than Indonesia-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which we don’t talk about much at all.

Chris Bowen:                No, no. But, by and large we’re not very much.

Chris Bowen:                Both of those countries have been bedeviled, in terms of our bilateral relations with different but similar problems in that in both cases the relationships have been transactional. Indonesia in particular, our relationship with Indonesia is transactional, it’s not deep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Going to Bali.

Chris Bowen:                Going to Bali or, from a government-government level, we’ve got a problem with boats, can you help us? Or live exports, it’s all about a transaction. And with India it’s a related but slightly different problem, is that it’s stop start. So there’s been good intentions by prime minsters, etc., and there’s been bilateral visits, and it disputes-

Misha Zelinsky:             You would’ve thought it’s easier, perhaps on a language basis and a cultural basis. There’s cultural alignment around sport, there’s language alignment-

Chris Bowen:                Curry, cricket, and Commonwealth. That’s what they say about India. Well let’s just step back for minute Misha. In each case, let’s look at why both countries are vital for us, and then look at why we need do better, or what we could do better.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Chris Bowen:                So, let’s just take India, the fastest growing major economy in the world. Probably will be the second biggest economy in the world by 2050, probably, on track. It will overtake China as the largest, most populous country in the world. OK. You’d think that means they’re pretty strategically and economically important for us. And, they absolutely are. But, again, it’s been stop start.

Chris Bowen:                I’m hopeful though that perhaps we’ve turned the corner with India because the biggest thing we’ve got going for us with India, is that they are now, pretty consistently, our largest source of permanent migrants. So we have a critical mass of permanent ambassadors, from us to them, and them to us. Those Australian-Indians or Indian heritage who now make Australia home, are very entrepreneurial, active in business, and hopefully will help us cement that relationship and stop it being about curry, cricket, and Commonwealth, but actually deepen it.

Chris Bowen:                There are a few things we can do for India. Firstly, we should be actively, not just say we agree, but we should, in my view, very actively promote India joining APEC. APEC’s an Australian invention-

Misha Zelinsky:             Forgot institution largely.

Chris Bowen:                It’s fallen off the tree a bit-

Misha Zelinsky:             Keith talked about it a lot, obviously.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah. See when APEC started, it was the main game in town-

Misha Zelinsky:             G20.

Chris Bowen:                Now you’ve got G20, you’ve got East Asia Forum. Summit season’s a busy time. And APEC tends to now be the forgotten cousin.

Chris Bowen:                Well one, Australia should promote invigoration of APEC, in my view, for all sorts of reasons. And two, we should welcome India to APEC. It’s an anomaly that they’re not in APEC. They’ve been trying to join since 1994. And the concern about India is, it’s a legitimate concern by some of our colleague countries in APEC, that India is generally not a globalized, generally not pro-free trade, and would be a blocker in APEC. Well my answer to that is we have to bring them in.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                You can’t pretend to exist. They are going to be the world’s second biggest economy. Let’s bring them in. We’ve got to give more support to those people in then Indian system arguing for openness. Now the proportion of trade in the Indian economy has doubled. Their exports have doubled over the last period. So, they are being more openly focused. Prime minister Modi’s instincts generally on the economy are more free trade and global in their approach. It’s still a very different economic system to ours. But there is cause for hope. So we’ve got to try to build our institutional, bilateral links with India much more, and we should try to bring them into regional architecture.

Chris Bowen:                On Indonesia. Now, Indonesia is the most stable country, basically in the world, when it comes to economic growth. They just continue to grow. China does, but Indonesia’s growth rate has been, if anything, even more stable. They’re just consistent, quiet achievers when it comes to economic growth-

Misha Zelinsky:             Quarter of a billion people!

Chris Bowen:                Yes! And so much so that they will be the world’s seventh biggest economy probably, by 2030, and fourth biggest economy by 2050. They’ll overtake us, Germany, the UK, everybody.

Chris Bowen:                Guess what? Their next door to us, and they’re not in our top trading partners. I think, hello? Are we getting something wrong here?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well it’s certainly…

Chris Bowen:                Yeah! And, again, as I said, our relation’s transactional. We don’t talk to each other.

Chris Bowen:                Here in Australia, more Australian school students study parts of Indonesia in 1972 than they do today. University campus after university campus is closing their Indonesian faculty, because they don’t have enough students.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is that an emphasis question? Why is that happening? You’ve learnt the language.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, because I decided that, for a couple of reasons, I couldn’t talk the talk, without walking the walk, and talk about Indonesia about how important it was, for example, that we left out Indonesia literacy, if I’m a middle-aged Anglo-Celtic, middle class guy, lecturing the country and young people that we need to do this, if I wasn’t prepared to do it myself.

Chris Bowen:                So, I took myself off at age forty-two, when I started, and got myself a degree in Indonesian language.

Misha Zelinsky:             Old dog, new tricks mate!

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                People say Indonesian’s an easy language, I say, no it’s not. There’s no such thing as an easy language to learn.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

Chris Bowen:                There are just some that are easier than others. And Indonesian’s at the easier end of the scale. It’s still very bloody hard.

Misha Zelinsky:             Other languages are always challenging.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah.

Chris Bowen:                But it can be done. And it can be done at middle age, mid-career. But language is important because one, it shows respect. Well I’m going to Chicago, and my language skills aren’t as good as I’d like them to be, I’m constantly working to improve them. But I can start a meeting with an Indonesian finance company, for example, in Indonesian. They often fall off their chair in surprise that a western politician can speak Indonesian. I don’t finish the meeting in Indonesian in case I agree to something I didn’t mean to.

Chris Bowen:                The fact that you show the respect, and often when I’m there the meetings flow in and out of Indonesian and English, because they can’t half speak English, and if I can speak Indonesian we show each other respect of floating in and out of each other’s language, to make sure we understand each other. It just changes completely the tone of the meeting. If you’re just speaking English, and often it’s pro-former, it’s formulaic, it’s a lot of, “Here you are.”, and “Thanks for your visit.”, “And stay as a good friend.” It’s bullshit.

Chris Bowen:                If you actually show the respect that you’ve learnt their language, it changes the tone of the meeting. And also, because we’re getting more young people learning Indonesian, or any other Asian language, Indonesian’s what I chose because you can’t learn them all. Any Asian language. You almost inevitably are engendering and interesting the country, and their background and their history. Part of my Indonesian degree was two compulsory subjects, the history of Indonesian language, and Indonesian contemporary culture.

Chris Bowen:                But even at school. When I was school I had the choice between Italian, and French, and German.

Misha Zelinsky:             Same.

Chris Bowen:                But they also taught us about the culture as they were teaching us language. The same with Indonesian, or Mandarin, or Hindi. We talked about India, but how many schools are teaching Hindi? None.

Chris Bowen:                And recently ABC fact checked me, and I’m glad they did, because I had said in a speech, going back to China for second, but it’s about Asian languages, I said in a speech Australian’s have non-Chinese heritage who can speak Mandarin to a level of business competence. The number is one-hundred and thirty.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ve heard stat, it’s an extraordinary stat.

Chris Bowen:                It’s extraordinary!

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s actually quite damning in a way.

Chris Bowen:                It is. And sometimes when I say to the speech people shake their head and say that can’t be true. One friend of mine slammed a pencil on the table and said, “That can’t be right!”. As I said, fact checked found that essentially it was right. So it was an educated guess, but even if it’s double that, even if it’s two-hundred and sixty! [crosstalk 00:32:21]

Misha Zelinsky:             Two fifty.

Chris Bowen:                Out of twenty-four million, that’s a pretty poor figure.

Chris Bowen:                Now, Mandarin skills aren’t bad, because of immigration.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Chris Bowen:                But that’s not going to get us there. Education is to get us there as well. So, we’ve got a massive step change to undertake, in terms of our engagement with the region. Because, to get back to your essential point, yes, we can’t put all our eggs in the China basket, share politically, economically, interest of the world, we’ve got to be lifting engagement with India, Indonesia, as young and in the entire region in particular.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah. Going back to the Indian question, because people look at India, look at China, now China has an economic miracle, and India tends to get forgotten. India’s mess here is democratic. I’m so curious on your take of, what’s the future for democracy, open markets, and mesial liberalism versus the Chinese model of state capitalism, state owned enterprises? At this point a lot of people are pointing saying, “Well, that model appears to be delivering, bringing people out of poverty.” Now it’s a convergence, it’s easier to catch up than it is to go forward, but is there legitimate case to stay that the state owned enterprise model, the central control model, is the way forward? Or do you still think the Indian model can prevail in the long term?

Chris Bowen:                No, the Indian model’s getting there. It’s a unique Indian model. It’s not what you recommend as a starting point with a tradition of protectionism and heavy state, very heavy handed regulations and anti-foreign investment. But they’re getting there.

Chris Bowen:                They now have a national GST, for example. It’s got seven different levels, depending on the product you’re buying, which is not necessarily how you design it from scratch in a perfect world, but it’s what they had to do to get it through, because up until then-

Misha Zelinsky:             John Howard did a deal here on the early exclusions. I mean, these things happen in politics, right?

Chris Bowen:                Well up until recently, every states had its own GST, and I’ve seen it, I’ve traveled through India and the trucks get stopped on the state borders to check the goods. That’s all gone. And they’re getting there with retail and land reform, etc. And their growth rates are strong. As I said, they’re the fasted growing major economy in the world, and probably on track to overtake the United States and become the world’s second largest economy at some point when you and I are still on the workforce Misha.

Chris Bowen:                That’s a big turnaround. So they’re getting there, and of course they’re a very robust, strong democracy. They just had an election. It’s a remarkable feat and logistical feat, the Indian election, as is an Indonesian election. But there’s two examples, India and Indonesia, two recent elections, all by and large comparatively smooth and straight forward, and democratic, and both engaged in pro-market reforms and continuing to grow.

Misha Zelinsky:             Does that give you hope for democracy in the region? Obviously, similar outcomes in Indonesia, very complex acapella go style elections-

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely!

Misha Zelinsky:             Very difficult to run them. And India’s also complex. A lot of people say, “Well, democracies on the way. China’s being more assertive. The Russian’s are being more assertive. The traditional democracies have lost their swagger. Brexit, Trump, etc.” Does that give you hope for the region?

Chris Bowen:                It does, and of course democratic change in Malaysia. An economy of similar size to us, similar population to us. I know Malaysia pretty well, I didn’t necessarily think I’d see a change of government in my lifetime, from the all-know government. I don’t think many Malaysians did either. They certainly had elections for a long time, but one party happened to win them every time, until this time. So, we shouldn’t discount that either. I’m not commenting on the details of Malaysian politics, but there’s been a change in government, which was unexpected.

Misha Zelinsky:             A peaceful change as well.

Chris Bowen:                They had a peaceful change, yeah!

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is always the test.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah.

Chris Bowen:                And you could not have guaranteed that a few years ago, if there was a change of government, that it would be peaceful. As I said, they tend to be forgotten, but they’re a significant economy roughly. A roughly comparable economy in terms of middle power, and there’s another example.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things I wanted to get your take on, former treasurer of Australia, you had the portfolio a long time in opposition, one thing that gets overlooked a lot in the debate is this question of debt, global debt. Since the GFC effectively money around the world has been effectively, if not free, subsidized, and we’ve just cut our own straights yet again here in Australia to 1% levels, unthinkable even five years ago. How concerned should we be about one more generally, what it’s doing to the global economy, and how concerning is debt when you look at the debt loans that individuals and countries are carrying? Big question.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, it worries me. It wouldn’t worry me if I was currently serving as treasurer of Australia. If you look at the global debt levels, it’s about 234% of GDP at the moment. Pre GFC it was 208%. So we have higher exposure than we had pre-GFC in the globe.

Chris Bowen:                Now, then you’ve got to look underneath it and say, what’s driven that? Now the good news is, is that a lot of that is driven by states, sovereign states. About eleven trillion has been handed by the United States. About five trillion has been added by China. Debt created by a sovereign government has its issues, but in terms of economic [stability around the world, it’s probably one of the less ‘badish’ types of debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             Owing it to yourself in your own currency.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

Chris Bowen:                Some comes from corporate in United States. And some comes from corporate in China, which is perhaps a cause for instability, if, because there are concerns about the opaqueness of some of that debt. If there is a downturn or a problem, it could be that, that is the cause of it. I don’t want to be too alarming, but you have to be realistic about where the shock could come from, and that is one.

Chris Bowen:                And some is household debt, which is a concern, and that’s our problem.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                Australia and Canada, household debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             World champions in that dubious area, right?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. Second highest in the developed world. Not a record we should be looking for. And that does expose us. If there was an international downturn, whether it be caused by Chinese debt crisis, whether it be caused by a US recession, which the markets would indicate. Possible/likely.

Misha Zelinsky:             Not to get in a super wonk-ish discussion, but inverted yield curves.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly. Exactly right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Predicting a US recession in twelve months, or so.

Chris Bowen:                Exactly right.

Chris Bowen:                And there is some rushing after that. Or it’s caused by an elongated, worsening trade war, or it’s caused by Europe/Brexit. Europe’s hasn’t been in a great state. Germany’s narrowly avoided a recession. Italy’s bouncing along the bottom. Greece continues to be Greece. Europe’s not in a great state, so from somewhere you could see the makings of an international downturn from one of the above. And if that happens, one of our exposes is our very high household debt.

Chris Bowen:                I think most households can cope with an increase in interest rate, obviously they’re going down at the moment, but even if they did start to move up, most households have factored in some buffer. What you can’t cope with is unemployment. And that’s where, if there is a downturn, and we’ve got very high household debt, we are in-

Misha Zelinsky:             The assumption is you’ve still got your job.

Chris Bowen:                Correct.

Chris Bowen:                Debt does worry me.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of government? Because one of the things that troubles me, it’s a global question, going right back to basic economics, cheaper money means businesses borrow, means they invest, households borrow to an extent they can consume, but largely, we want to see this investment piece. Now, the rate of capital formation. So, i.e. people borrowing money to invest in new things to build. New factories, new businesses, etc., is on the way. You’re seeing largely this subsidized money being driven into asset markets, property shares and other forms of equity.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is there a role there to make sure that we actually, well, if we’re going to subsidize money, it goes into job creation, or into things that are going to create economic activity?

Chris Bowen:                Well, ideally.

Chris Bowen:                I don’t want to go through the war, but that was one of the policy rationales for our negative gearing reforms, for example. Obviously the pay will go through a process of revising our policies. But one of the things that drove us on negative gearing reform was that we have the most generous property tax concessions in the world. I mean it’s almost irrational not to be a property investor in Australia.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well the tax system tells you to do it, right? You can watch my essay on this, but I find it crazy for every ten dollars that’s borrowed in Australia, six bucks go in the property market.

Chris Bowen:                Because we provide such incentives to do for the tax system.

Misha Zelinsky:             People go with incentives like water goes down hill.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

Chris Bowen:                And so, that’s one of the reasons why we have the second highest household debt in the world. It’s because our tax system encourages it. Now, again, as I stress, the party has got to go through the process of a review, but that was the number of rationales for that reform, one of them was housing affordability, one of them was budget repair, and the other one was financial stability and high household debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the way forward here, in terms of actually getting consumption going? Because 60% of the economy is driven by consumption. So the focus tends to lead largely on supplies, so let’s get monetary policy-

Chris Bowen:                Well the reserve bank governors made it clear they can only do so much, right?

Chris Bowen:                Again, it’s a bit hard to avoid the recent election, but we had policies on the investment guarantee to encourage businesses to invest. But we also, unapologetically said, well you can’t expect people to consume when the wage is going backwards. And so we did have some, you might call them radical, but strong policies on the living wage, on penalty rates, because unless we get wages growth going, and it did require a degree of intervention because the systems not sorting it. And this is an international problem, I don’t hold this government entirely responsible for all of it, but I hold them responsible for the lack response, and for saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             And incoherence in the policy, cutting penalty rates-

Chris Bowen:                Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:             Demand for consumption.

Chris Bowen:                Well we can argue about the way it’ll increase wages, but I think we could probably agree the way to increase wages is not to cut them on weekends.

Chris Bowen:                We saw wages growth as being pretty important for social justice and fairness, and equality, but a pretty important economic stimulus as well. Unless there is a solution found through those mechanisms or others, we are going to continue to bounce on the bottom of consumption. And the economy will continue to be anaemic. In my view.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I could probably pick your brain all day, but you’re a very busy man with a lot of things to do. But, before you go, and one of my classic clunky segues into the lamest of all questions, Chris Bowen’s barbecue, three international guests, three international shows, so who are the international guests alive or dead that you’d have at a barbecue at Bowen’s? It’s got alliteration, so already-

Chris Bowen:                There you go, I could get an apron printed or something.

Chris Bowen:                Three international guests! Well, and they can be dead? Well first-

Misha Zelinsky:             Might be less fun.

Chris Bowen:                Well, OK, to show my pure [wonkiness 00:44:15], in the fantasy football world, and they could be dead, Winston Churchill. I was born eight years after he died, so never walked the planet with him, but I’ve read basically everything you can read about him, an enormous, remarkable figure. And then you’d put Clem Attlee in. You’d see those to be in the same room as those two. Being a bit more realistic around the world, pretty interested in the US presidential race at the moment. I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of hours with Pete Buttigieg.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, I met Pete, he’s really a compelling guy isn’t he?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah! Yeah, I’d have him over for a barbecue. I’d have Ruth Bader Ginsburg over as well, if she could make it. Very admirably figure, powerful intellectual, extraordinary figure.

Chris Bowen:                And then just to mix it up completely, I’d probably have, this guy is actually a friend of mine, I’ve come to know him, I’d have, just to mix it up a bit, a guy who I think is probably the best, in my view, the best living novelist in the world, I’m bias, is John Boyne. He’s an Irish novelist. He wrote the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and he wrote The Absolutist, which I highly recommend. A compelling read. I’ve come to know him, he’s a good fella. An Irishman, an Irish novelist. He loves Australia! He comes to Australia at every opportunity, that’s how we got to know each other.

Misha Zelinsky:             [crosstalk 00:45:48] I think Churchill might have an interesting discussion.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah! That’s right. I don’t think Churchill’s appeared directly in any of his novels. He certainly has written about the issues of the day. So I’d have John over as well.

Misha Zelinsky:             So we’ve got a novelist, a former British prime minster-

Chris Bowen:                And the nearest south bender [crosstalk 00:46:08]-

Chris Bowen:                I added one.

Misha Zelinsky:             And that’s right, a former president of Australia. So that would be a great barbecue, I’d definitely like to be a fly on the wall with that one. Chris Bowen, thanks for joining us, I really appreciate your time mate.

Chris Bowen:                Been a lot of fun Misha. Good on you.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.

 

Ambassador Curtis Chin

Ambassador Curtis Chin served as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.  In doing so, he became only the fourth US ambassador of Chinese heritage. As one of the world’s foremost experts on the Asia-Pacific region, Curtis now serves as the Asia Fellow of the nonpartisan Milken Institute and works with a range of startups and impact funds in Asia. Curtis joined Misha Zelinsky for a chat about the US-China trade war, what a deal looks like for both countries, the future of global trade and governance, and how the world should respond to countries that want to break the rules.

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:                  Curtis Chin, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Curtis Chin:                           Hey, doing well. Great to be with you.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And I should just reference for the audience, that we’re doing this through a web chat interface, so you’re currently in Bangkok, which is three hours behind Sydney time. So thank you for joining us. You’re an American in Thailand, but thank you for joining us as an international guest.

Curtis Chin:                           Delighted to be with you. I think though with so many of us, it’s one city one day, another city the next day, but very clearly, I spend most of time here in Asia, really Southeast Asia. And I’m with the Milken Institute out of Singapore, but yeah, from the US, but back and forth between the US and Asia-Pacific. So great to be with you today, chatting about Asia-Pacific, sharing some thoughts on Australia, the rest of the region, and some of the big stories of these weeks, and probably the whole year, which is the front and foremost, China and the US.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. I think that’s actually a good place to start. So you’re obviously an Asia-Pacific expert, you spend a lot of time in the Asian region. Big news at the moment, and certainly the last six to twelve months has been this question of trade, and certainly this trade tensions between China and the United States, and what increasingly now looking like a trade war. So I suppose the first question is, is this a trade war and what should the world make of the sort of these trade tensions between the United States and China?

Curtis Chin:                           First let me go back to your comment that I’m an expert, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s an expert in terms of what’s going on right now between the US and China. I mean, it really is unprecedented. You know, I was very lucky to serve primarily in Republican administrations, but I was lucky to serve also in the Obama administration as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. And I’d say for a long time Republicans and Democrats … and no one’s really been a big fan of tariffs. So today we’re at a situation where back and forth, whether you call it a trade war, or let’s say a tariffs war, we’re seeing the United States and China continue to raise tariffs on each other’s products. For me in the short run, clearly not a good thing. In the long run my hope is that both sides will come up with a way that will lead to a more balanced, more sustainable relationship between China and the US.

Curtis Chin:                           But also if both sides succeed in moving this forward, it will be to the benefit of the entire region, of all of Asia-Pacific, including Australia. When you think about countries that in my view, have become so dependent on China as a source of purchases of their commodities, Australia comes to mind, but also as a place where you move supply chains because labor costs have been cheaper there. So you’ve seen this movement over the what? Last decades, but that needs to change. One, it’s already changing even before these tariffs back and forth, because the cost of production in China is getting more expensive. But also I could say quite frankly, that as we think about China’s behavior, what might have been acceptable two or three decades ago … I mean, clearly China was a poor country, is not acceptable today. Bluntly we might say it’s time for China to grow up and take on some of the responsibilities that come with being again, a great economic power.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting you said there, you touched on that for a long time the bipartisan consensus in the United States, certainly globally too, is that free trade is good, tariffs are bad, interventionism is bad. What’s interesting is … I suppose firstly, and I’m keen to get your take on this, a lot of people will say that this is a Trump thing, but it’s actually, interestingly, perhaps the only thing that both sides of the United States, of the aisle politically agree on, which is that sometimes the war on trade is popular and bipartisan, because you saw Trump tweeting as he does, about tariffs that he’s going to put on, and being encouraged by the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, saying he was doing the right thing and to keep going. So it’s interesting the US in a very quick way, in a bipartisan way, to have a more assertive approach to Chinese trade in the United States. So I’m curious to get your take on what that journey is and how the United States has gotten itself to this point.

Curtis Chin:                           Well, you know I think your points, it’s clearly not just a Trump thing, I think President Trump to his great credit, has really captured kind of the moment, the feeling, the frustration of not just Americans, but people all around the world who have tried to engage with China. Clearly the world has benefited from less expensive products made in China because of traditionally what have been lower labor cost. And in may ways it was a gamble, with purchasing products from China, with making products in China, lead also to a more economically, politically liberal nation. That gamble has not paid off. We’re seeing a China today that is much more strict in term of how it treats its own people, in terms of its crackdowns on Christians and Muslims, in terms of its behavior on human rights. And it shouldn’t take away from the successes that China has achieved in lifting really, hundreds of millions out of poverty. But again, I think to one of my earlier points, China also has to evolve, China has to grow up.

Curtis Chin:                           And so Trump has in a way, come into this moment, really perhaps, he was the president for this moment, and even China in the past has said this trade imbalance between the United States and China is not sustainable, because ultimately it will lead to a pushback, and we’re seeing that, not just in the United States, but really throughout the Southeast Asia region in particular. Again, I’m based mainly in Southeast Asia, and when I speak to chairmen, CEOs, senior leadership of Southeast Asian businesses, you also find tremendous support, tremendous sympathy for the points that Donald Trump is making. I was out actually recently with the chairman of a Southeast Asian company, he stepped down as CEO from his role, and what he said to me was very interesting, he said that in many ways, they would all love to go on record and say what Trump is saying, but China has been a vindictive nation, that we’ve seen records recently, of where they’ve punished companies for doing things that went against China’s foreign policy.

Curtis Chin:                           One specific example would be South Korea. In South Korea, there’s a big conglomerate called Lotte, big South Korean company, respected company. The South Korean government, to protect its own people, made the decision to install kind of like a missile defense system. The land that was used was once owned by Lotte. So what happened? China sought to punish Lotte in terms of its business transactions in China. So just one very real example of how the Chinese government behaves against individual companies. President Trump to his great credit is saying, “We the United States will speak up on these issues,” because in many ways I think his language was, “China has been ripping off the US and too much of the world. We need to rebalance that.” And that rebalancing also will be to the benefit of China itself. I’m sure China is not happy with it being kind of like the country that’s increasingly kicked around in rhetoric not just in the US, but in public and in private, in parts of Asia.

Curtis Chin:                           That’s not good for China. China really should be embraced for what it has done in terms of lifting millions out of poverty, but its treatment of foreign businesses, both in China and outside of China really has to stop. And so where I would say that I think the Trump administration needs to evolve, is they’ve identified very clearly and spoken out very clearly on the issue, but I think they have to evolve in a way that also brings in their many natural allies to come together, to help China move forward in this situation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. One of the things I’m curious about, Trump sort of is always promoting himself as the great deal maker, but the question of tariffs is obviously that it sort of punishes the country that’s taking their export for some sort of practice, but at the same time it obviously lifts prices for households. Now, a figure I saw was that if they end up putting up this 25% tariff on all Chinese imported goods into the United States, we’re talking about $2,500 a year per household increase in the cost of living. The thing I’m curious about is does this have implications for Trump in the domestic policy sense, and also to your mind, what does a deal look like? Trump focuses a lot on trade deficits, but what does a deal look, and what does victory look like in this situation, because the grievance is clear, but it’s not as clear one who wins, households in the United States get punished, and secondly what does a deal look like in the minds of Trump or other experts?

Curtis Chin:                           Yeah. A number of interesting points you raise. First, when you have tariffs … and I’m no fan of tariffs. Tariffs openly I hope, are means to a more balanced relationship between the United States and China. The other is that question, who pays for a tariff? So let’s say you’re selling a product, a tariff is imposed, one question will be, “Can that tariff be passed on to the end consumer?” Right, then of course the consumer will most ultimately pay. Will that company though first try to absorb it because they’re afraid of losing the business? It’s a little bit more complicated than what people say. But I also underscores, there are always winners and losers when it comes to tariffs. Another tricky point. We talk about the impact of tariffs on the American consumer, but I remember I did one interview where someone said to me, “But don’t you benefit from cheap products at Walmart?” Though again, it’s a big American store. Of course we do, but clearly I can only afford those cheap products if I have a job, and have I lost my job because of all those cheap products?

Curtis Chin:                           It’s really kind of a balance that we need to seek, and then likewise, when people raise the point of American consumers ultimately in the short term pay, I wonder if people will pose that same interpretation to China, or is it just China cares less about its consumers, and they’re thinking that the US will worry about its consumers but China will not, as it tit for tat, tries then tariffs the other way around? So I think we need to look at the individual winners and losers. I think the Chinese are now trying to target agricultural areas, big support areas for President Trump. As we think about the politics of trade also, President Trump of course, is running for reelection. Election is next year, next November. That’s a lot of months before that election, to get a deal done. So we’ll see how it plays out with this timing. Your second point, what will a deal look like?

Curtis Chin:                           My fear is that ultimately there will be a face-saving deal, where each side claims victory, but really nothing changes. And so that goes to you, what is success? For me success isn’t simply that Chinese buy a lot more US exports. Clearly that’s a short-term win. But it doesn’t address the longterm issue that many countries … maybe the US is at the forefront, but many countries are facing with regards to China, which is theft of intellectual property, which is forced technology transfers, which are non-tariff trade barriers. It’s a range of things that companies, whether they’re Australian, or American, or from somewhere in Southeast Asia are facing. For me a real success would be if some of these things change. You know there was some talk that actually, that the Chinese as part of the negotiation process, had agreed to some of this, because perhaps they saw that it was in their interest too.

Curtis Chin:                           On this war, who knows the backstory and all these reports and tweets? But then you saw, most recently, leading up to the latest announcement by President Trump, about really, a move to impose tariffs on all Chinese exports, was this point that China reneged, that China moved backwards in terms of edits on the agreement that the negotiators had already agreed to. So only the people involved will know the truth to that, but I can tell you as business person who’s worked in Beijing, who’s worked in Hong Kong, and now worked throughout Southeast Asia, business people from all kinds of companies, American, Australian and others, have seen that same reality, where something that you thought was negotiated with a Chinese counterpart, all of a sudden doesn’t seem so negotiated as the process moves forward. So I would not be surprised that there is quite a bit of truth to that comment, to that tweet from President Trump, “The Chinese reneged, the Chinese moved backwards.” And so again, that needs to change.

Curtis Chin:                           So again when we talk about what is victory, victory ideally is a victory for both sides. That both sides, China and the United States, to go back to their really important domestic constituencies, and say “We’ve come to an agreement, we moved these things forward.” But then ultimately that victory will be a more sustained trading relationship between the United States and China. One of the point I always want to make though, is that we looked at some of the drivers of where we are today. Clearly for decades the Chinese have in a way, been gaming the system, taking advantage of the system, something that might have been tolerated when they really were a much poorer nation and a less militaristic nation than they are today. So that has to evolve. But I think one thing that we need to think more about more, and hopefully media can talk about more, is that in the world today, exports are both of goods and services.

Curtis Chin:                           So we talk a lot about things that were made, or grown, and exported, but we also need to think about the services. United States, developing nations, are also trying to move this way, but the United States has moved to develop the economy, where a lot of things we produce are services, are intellectual property, are things that again, are of great value, of greater value added than something simple that might have been made 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. As we talk about the balance between nations in terms of what they import or export, I think we should ideally spend also more time talking about both goods and services, versus the focus on the easy number to understand, which is how many widgets or bushels of this has a nation purchased. Out of all this I think back about our evolving sense of trade, of Asia. Ultimately, and I say to people, “Things have moved forward, it’s a positive thing. Trade has been a wonderful thing.”

Curtis Chin:                           But the reality also is that in this more globalized world, this globalized economy of ours, many people have not done so well. So Trump has captured that moment, and spoken to people about what can he do to fight for them. But I see that across this world of ours, and across Europe, but very much across here and Asia, where in the Philippines, they had a recent election also, a very populist leader, India is going to an election, Indonesian had its own election, where leaders have to respond to their vast number of citizens who maybe don’t see that they’ve become better off as part of this globalized economy.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And we’ve certainly seen that with Brexit as well. I think you’re right. I mean, the question of trade and who benefits, and it might … it looks good in a headline number, but often say trade destroys and distributes unevenly. And I think there’s a lot of people that have been left behind or dislocated, and it’s expressing itself in this politics in a worrying sort of way. So I think certainly a lot to think about there for policymakers. One thing I’m curious about is, and you sort of talked a lot about the trade relationship, that seems to me now that the United States very much considers itself or it sees China now as very much a strategic competitor.

Curtis Chin:                           I think in every US administration, every country around the world, even your government hopefully, is working to give its citizens a better life. And so I think what we’ve seen is this continuing movement to a richer world, but also a more unequal world. And so you’ve seen so much talk about inequality kind of bubbling up over these last, really two decades, and I think we’ve reached that point where people are trying to look for what are the drivers of this inequality, how do we address that? And so very clearly, the two biggest economies in the world, China and the US, ought to be very much part of that conversation. You raised an intriguing question when you talk about China and the US, China versus the US. For me taking a step back, in many ways I see things also as not just China versus the US, but a US-driven system versus an alternative that China is pushing when it comes to concepts of competition, economics, of trade, and governance.

Curtis Chin:                           In general, I think no country wants to chose and say, “I’m on the US’s side or on the China side,” but I would say to nations, I would say to the people of Australia and elsewhere, “It really it’s up to you to decide which system is better for your own people.” For me, clearly I’m biased, I am for a system of free markets, free trade, and free speech. This is not what China is for, right? But often people will say, “But I got to follow the money, I got to pay the bills, I got to do what I need to do. It’s China that is the big customer.” And so that’s what people think to think through. It’s a very difficult question sometimes. I spoke recently at a Bloomberg event in Singapore on this whole same issue of China and the US, and I was struck by one of our fellow panelist, a friend … he’s actually from the Democrat side versus Republican side, but clearly we’re both Americans. Kirk Wagar, the former US ambassador to Singapore.

Curtis Chin:                           It was very interesting when he made a comment, and that comment was basically, “Western businesses, when they deal with China, the big question for them is, ‘Do you have to sell your soul, or to what degree do you sell your soul?’” So I’m paraphrasing his comment, but that’s that challenge of you’re going to make so much money hopefully dealing with China, the reality is many companies lose money dealing with China. But in pursuit of that market, or in Pursuit of that cheaper production base, do you simply look the other way on all the terrible things that China is doing? Maybe case number one, we see these days are these reports coming out of Xinjiang, this Northwest part of China, of where they put, by some accounts, one million to two million people into camps. Some would say concentration camps, of all the terrible connotations that raises from World War II. But they put people there simply because they’re Muslim.

Curtis Chin:                           That clearly, I would hope the world would speak out about. But we’ve seen how Muslim nations, many nations have looked the other way. “It’s China’s right,” I think one Saudi leader said, “as to how they deal with what China perceives as a terrorism threat.” But for me, maybe I’m not getting any business in the near term in China, because I want to speak up on behalf of all Chinese people, whether they’re Muslim, or Tibetan, or Han Chinese. You know I’m ethnic. People can’t see me on your podcast, but I think my great-grandfather went to the US way back in the late 1880s to help build the railways or something. I’m ethnic Chinese, but for me it shouldn’t be about your ethnicity, really even your nationality, but people should willing speak up on behalf of those that really need speaking up on behalf. So clearly the Muslims, the Tibetans, but even Christians. We’re seeing reports that the Chinese have been particularly aggressive in tearing down Christian churches, which they don’t recognize. These are all not great things.

Curtis Chin:                           But what if you want to do business in China? Do you say nothing because you’re going to make some money? That’s a very difficult question for people who again, who have to pay the bills. But for me, you can’t, in my mind, simply chose to say nothing because you want the money. There is some balance and each individual, each company needs to think through what is that … and in the long run, my hope is that all Chinese people will appreciate this notion that every single individual has value. There I go sounding like an American.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s okay. It’s good to be of your people. But it’s so curious, you were touching quite a bit there about the rule of law, I think largely, I mean. And the United States is larger] since World War II certainly, in this so-called rules-based global order. China’s really bumping up against that now, and one of the things I’m sort of curious to take on, I mean, where are the areas that you think that the United States is prepared to turn the other way? So for example, if you take South China Sea where Barack Obama, President Obama sort of didn’t do a great deal as the Chinese government sort of constructed these artificial islands in the South China sea, and then militarizes on, has in effect sort of annexed a part of the South China sea.

Misha Zelinsky:                  How do you see things of that nature when it comes to getting the Chinese government to obey and respect maritime law in that instance, where the international courts very clearly ruled against China, and it essentially ignored them? How do make your earlier point that China, and they need to be a responsible grown up actor? How do you actually enforce that with the Chinese government?

Curtis Chin:                           I think the reality here, even when I go back thinking about that question you asked, the reality is it cannot just be China and the US deciding. What are the regional bodies, global bodies that can play really, a shaping role? I mean, the reality is that at the end of the day, and sadly this goes back to a statement, even when you think about Chinese history that, “Power grows out of a barrel of a gun,” Mao famously said in the civil war in China. And the reality is that when you look at some our regional institutions like ASEAN the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, they act by consensus. Many of those nations have a stake in the South China Sea, and the Philippines even calls it the West Philippines Sea, but China has been very aggressive in building up … I don’t know, we call them [islandets00:25:55], or little islands, or fake islands, I don’t know. And then despite saying they wouldn’t, moving into to militarize them.

Curtis Chin:                           But China’s got the guns, and maybe other countries don’t have the guns, or they want Chinese investment. So lets deal with that. But to your point, I would hope that a nation let’s say like Australia, can step up. It’s what we call like freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation, trips to the South China Sea. That nations throughout the region can seek to come together to engage with China. The Chinese strategy has always been one of like picking off countries, some would argue that ASEAN already has in a way, been nullified because China has bought out Laos and Cambodia. And for a associations that acts by consensus, if Cambodia has in the past said, “Well, no, no. We’re not going to issue a joint statement because we Cambodia, don’t agree,” it blocks efforts. So hopefully that will evolve and all. Your question also raised this point about systems, and organizations, and governance.

Curtis Chin:                           One I know very well, is this whole issue of how will we support and fill the financing gap? How will we support the building of infrastructure in the region when there’s been a big gap? The region’s infrastructure needs and how they will be financed. So four years, nearly two under Obama, nearly two under Bush, I served as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. For those who don’t know, that’s kind of like an Asia-Pacific base, Philippines headquartered version of the World Bank, primarily focused on ending poverty in this region, mainly through building infrastructure, a lot of core infrastructure, roads, power, water systems, sanitation. Really doing good things there. But how do you build those infrastructure projects? So World Bank, Asian Development Bank, they’re all in this region. For the last couple of years we’ve seen Chinese rivals.

Curtis Chin:                           And so we’ve first and foremost seen the rise of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We’ve seen something called the New Development Bank, some people call it the BRICS bank after Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the key players there. That one’s based out of Shanghai. We’re see moves by bilateral financial institutions like the Chinese development banks, or that will be just working with one country, versus these multilateral banks. We’re seeing a lot of new players challenging that old, what they call this old Bretton Woods type institutions to finance and move Asia forward. In many ways that’s a good thing, hopefully it makes some of those old bodies, like my old colleagues at the ADB, a little bit more hungry, innovative, focused on acting quicker to serve the needs of this region. But it’s a bad thing if what it is, it’s also a push to the bottom, who will get the money out the fastest. When I was on the board of the Asian Development Bank, I visited a nation whose engagement with the ministry of finance, is they seek to get funding for key infrastructure projects.

Curtis Chin:                           ADB, I think to its great credit, like the World Bank and others, we’ll try to push for certain, what we call safeguards, so that if you put in an infrastructure project, the environment would be in some ways be protected. There’d be … the lingo today is ESG, so there’d be like environmental, social, governance safeguards put in place. These are all good things, but then it makes a project take a little bit longer to develop. So if you’re a country just in search of financing, what if all of a sudden there are Chinese-backed banks? There’s nothing else. “We don’t care about those ESG, those safeguard standards, we trust you as the borrowing country to decide what’s right for your own people.” You can see there will be sympathy for that, “You decide what’s right for your own country in term of protecting the environment based on your own spot in that kind of development line.” But then the Chinese might say, “But if we do the financing for you, maybe Chinese state-owned enterprises were going to do a lot of the work, maybe it will come with 500 to 1,000 Chinese employees and workers.”

Curtis Chin:                           So I think any nation, they decide. It’s their money, they ultimately have to pay it back, but read the fine print. So don’t think that because maybe the Chinese aren’t insisting on certain safeguards that others might, that it doesn’t come with other things that they might well insist upon. And so that’s how it should be. As long as it’s transparent, these institutions are accountable, that’s how it should be. Let the market compete. What the big problem is though, and we’re beginning to see it even in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, this is a big infrastructure funding push, is that what if decisions aren’t made fairly? What if corruption is involved? What if money changes hands? And case in point has been what we’ve seen has happened in Malaysia. In the last year or so, Malaysia brought back its longtime prime minister, probably the oldest prime minister in the world, Mahathir came back in with … was swept his party back into government, overturning the rule of, I think for decades, of what is not the opposition party.

Curtis Chin:                           And when Mahathir came back in as leader of Malaysia, he raised questions, it certainly raised eyebrows in China, but he raised question about some of the big infrastructure deals that were signed by his predecessor Najib, with the Chinese government. And to his great credit, forced renegotiation. And so one that’s come up most recently is … I think is calling it like an East Rail, a project … Really so much money in his huge infrastructure projects. Mahathir was ultimately able to shave the cost of the product or project. Not exactly apples and oranges because the project did change somewhat, but shaved the cost of that project by a third. And so it makes you wonder where was that extra third, you were talking really tens of millions of dollars, where was that money going? Into Chinese pockets? Into construction company pockets? Into Malaysian pockets? And then a question for the region, for countries that haven’t had this kind of democratic revolution bringing back an old prime minister, focused now on corruption.

Curtis Chin:                           What about all of those countries with deals other than the One Belt, One Road initiative, that haven’t had a Mahathir, to try to renegotiate and bring those costs down by a third? Where has that money gone? And so these are some of the questions that I think individual citizens may well raise when they see deals signed with China. But sadly in so many nations, those citizens are ignored, because the deal is done with leaders, and those leaders know for good and for bad, where that money has gone or will be going. So yes, China can be a constructive force in this region, but for that to happen in this changing world of ours, China too must evolve. And so bringing this all kind of full circle to how we began talking about China and the US, clearly we see this rivalry between the Chinese and the US government at this time. Hopefully it’s not a rivalry between the peoples of these nations, where people just want a better life for themselves.

Curtis Chin:                           But it’s also a rivalry, I believe, between different systems. So this Chinese system is one again, of subsidizing their own companies. To what degree is that acceptable or should it be acceptable, and then how do you have a level playing field when you’re up against a state-owned enterprise that’s completely subsidized by the second largest economy in the world? And I think these are important questions, that again are just not US versus China questions, and hopefully they’re questions that are also being asked within China. But we’re seeing now in some of the reports that are coming out of China, few and far between, where China itself is cracking down on its own Chinese economists and their own people who would dare challenge what Xi Jinping is pushing through right now. As I think a Chinese American, as somewhat Asian American, someone who’s living in both the US and Asia, I in particular want China to move forward and to succeed just like every other nation, but China must evolve, and my hope is that it’ll be done peacefully versus all the turmoil that China has gone through this last century.

Curtis Chin:                           My hope is that that does not come back. In a weird way, that may be what Xi Jinping fears, but is he putting in place a system which might encourage or increase the odds of that coming back. A case in point, Xi Jinping, president of China, pushed through a way for him to serve as really president for life. So in a way governance has moved backwards in China. Xi Jinping has a lot of rivals within China that maybe aren’t so happy with how he’s done things. This US-China back and forth, this trade war really emerged under his watch. So there’s a lot of questions within China about he’s doing things, but those people are increasingly kind of squashed. In the old days, if you were a senior Chinese leader, maybe you’d wait out whoever the president was, you’d wait five years, you’d wait 10 years, but that has now changed. Maybe there is no waiting out Xi Jinping.

Curtis Chin:                           And so are people moving sadly, back to that old system? Are they trying to bring him down, stab him in the back? Things that are not good, because that’s how China has evolved. It’s evolved backwards, and it’s gone back to the system where actually it’s almost like there’s a new emperor in town, that emperor is Xi Jinping. And what happened to emperors in the past? They either died or were overthrown. So that’s not a good thing for China, and I think no one should welcome turmoil in China. And so again it’s in China’s own interest to rethink about how it treats not just the US, but how it treats all its neighbors. The Chinese version of rule of law is not one that I would hope the world seeks to emulate. We look right now at an imprisoned … out on parole I think, the technical term is, but an imprisoned Huawei, this big Chinese tech company CFO in Canada under the Canadian version of rule of law.

Curtis Chin:                           I think that Huawei executive has just moved from one of her multimillion dollar houses in Vancouver to another multimillion dollar house in Vancouver while she goes through the Canadian legal process as will she be extradited to the United States regarding charges of was she really directly involved in her company’s trying to avoid sanctions on Iran, create shell companies, all these things. Right? So the rule of law is proceeding. Meanwhile in China, and I dare say it’s not coincidentally, but connected, China has retried one Canadian, I think sentenced him to death. China is now putting I think two Canadian citizens under arrest, alleging that they’re spies. There was one, I think social media post, that’s never all …. as you know never sure how accurate some of these posts are, but this particular social media post contrasted the treatment of those Canadians under the Chinese version of the rule of law, versus the Huawei CFO, her name is Meng, CFO Meng, among under the Canadian rule of law.

Curtis Chin:                           And so I say to countries, I say to people, “As you think about the systems that are really contending now, a Chinese way of doing things, a Western way of things, what is better for you?” And so my hope is that this notion of East versus West isn’t one of really of East versus West, it’s really what’s right for a nation. And as I think about even one person … I did an interview when someone said to me on air, “Well, isn’t this stealing of property by the Chinese cultural?” And I had to push back, one because I’m ethnic Chinese. But when you think about what does that mean, culture, because very clearly when I go to a dynamic place like Singapore, or a dynamic place like Hong Kong, or Taiwan, mainly Chinese people, ethnic Han Chinese people, I don’t see them ripping off and stealing other countries’ or other companies’, other countries companies’ intellectual property like you do in China.

Curtis Chin:                           So if it’s cultural, it’s because of a business climate that the communist Chinese have created, it’s not because people are ethnic Chinese or Caucasian or whatever. And I think that’s how we need to look at things in order to move things forward. And again, I keep coming to this point that moving things forward are also in the interest of the Chinese people. And so it’s always intriguing where people say that, “How long will you as a citizens stand for tariffs?” If indeed those higher costs are passed on to them. But then we can throw that same question at the Chinese, how often will Chinese citizens stomach and tolerate all that their leaders do, then impose this higher cost and burdens on them, whether it’s the money they spend, the lives they live, or what they can say? And unlike in a democracy, where the Chinese citizens say, “No, we want to change things. We’ll have different leaders,” how do people change things in China? Their track record has not been good when it’s been a system where the Chinese people have no way to peacefully speak up. And that’s the challenge for our world today.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So the question I have … So you sort of talked a lot about this sort of the competing models and the hope that I suppose, over time the theory always was that China would gradually adopt Western norms of global leadership and rules-based order. The thing that is curious in all this is that the United States has always been the underwriter of these systems and has always had great confidence in these systems. One of the great strengths of the United States model of global leadership has been its alliance system. Now, people have thought about Trump’s approach to the strategic rivalry with China, but one of the things I’d like input is Trump’s administration approach to United States’ friends in a way that has attacked NATO allies, it has attacked allies in Asia region, such as South Korea for not pulling their weight, etc. How can the United States’ friend believe in the system that United States has underpinned and expect China to adopt a system that perhaps the United States itself seems to be walking away from somewhat.

Curtis Chin:                           I don’t know if the answer is walking from a system that we’ve all benefited from, this global trading system, but very clearly, the United States is saying it needs to be change and fixed. One case and point I look at is think about all these global bodies, and that’s where my hope … We talk about West versus East, but I hope some of these global bodies are really seen as global bodies, because I think part of the challenge is we say it’s a Western system or, “I’m from the East. I don’t want that system.” But I would argue that things like human rights, free speech, worship whatever you want, your religion, or whatever your faith is, isn’t a Western concept, but then I hope would be more universal concepts. So going back to your point, so one of the institutions that I think needs to evolve, one example would be the World Trade Organization, and I think even the WTO leadership has said, “Yeah. We need to change too.” And it’s the Trump administration that is pushing for some of these changes.

Curtis Chin:                           One example would be under WTO rules right now, that China is still treated as a developing nation. So maybe it’s allowed to do certain things, can it have more state-owned enterprises, more support for state-owned enterprises, but then a developed nation can’t? So doesn’t that need to change? For me it’s kind of ridiculous also that this second largest economy in the world that is China, some would say largest economy based on purchasing power parity, that this nation still borrows money from the World Bank, still borrows money from the Asian Development Bank, because they say, “Oh, we’re a poor country.” So again it goes back I think, to these metrics, but very clearly, China has resources that other nations do not have. China again, amazing, has put like this little rover on I think, the far side of the moon, and yet it still borrows money from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank because it says, “Oh, we’re a poor country, we need these subsidized loans to help us fight poverty.”

Curtis Chin:                           And so I think these institutions need to change, WTO, ADB, World Bank, and how they treat a nation like China. And what’s great about these rules-based organizations also, it would be that, it’s not just about China. If it were another nation in that same kind of role as they move up, they also should in a sense, graduate from these kinds of assistance like grants and subsidized loans. And so I think, we think about this China and the US, I think that’s part of the challenge that right now because of this tariffs war, it’s seen as China versus the US. But in many ways, there will be many allies in the battle if they could speak freely, and also many more allies in a sense, if the Trump administration to your point, I think were more adept in how it handles its long time allies and friends. The US relationship with Australia, with Thailand, with Singapore, with the Philippines, these are relationships that will continue to evolve, but really are foundations for moving things forward in a way that will I think, benefit the countries involved, but also benefit this region, this Indo-Pacific region as well as the world.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So one question I want to ask you, are you a member or do you have an involvement in the International Republican Institute, the IRI which is responsible for promoting democracy globally? There’s a sister organization to Democrats version of them. Traditionally people have always thought that China would grow rich and then it would grow democratic. What we’ve seen as it’s grown richer, unfortunately it’s become more autocratic. You touched on the fact that Xi has made himself emperor for life. With your sort of background in what makes democracy great and how democracies flourish, do you hold any sort of hope … is there anything to hope for people that want to see China become more democratic, or is that just a lost hope now to your mind?

Curtis Chin:                           Are both the International Republican Institute and this National Democratic Institute, they’re both come under this umbrella, National Endowment for Democracy, which really comes out of … started to work way back when I began my career, like an intern under Ronald Reagan. But something that Ronald Reagan sought to encourage, was the spread of democracy. So these are nonpartisan groups, even though one sounds Republican one sounds Democrat. And their job really is to encourage democracy, but I think more importantly and this goes to the heart of your question, to encourage institutions, and systems, and processes that allow democracy to flourish. I’m usually always like the most hopeful person in the room, even though like the room’s falling apart. And so I’m always hopeful that things will be moving forward. But I think it’s important that we talk about democracy, that we realize that democracy is not just elections, democracy is about balance, it’s about systems, checks and balances, it’s about institutions.

Curtis Chin:                           And so like the work of both IRI, NDI, would be things like encouraging political parties, it doesn’t matter which party you are, but encouraging political parties to think through the use of research, degree that is allowed or easily done in a given country, so that they can better understand what citizens are worried about, what they’re concerned about, and then think through how they can best address those concerns. It’s about how do you strengthen a democratic process? Where people don’t like whoever is running, there’s a chance to get rid of that person. So yes, I’m hopeful for China in the long run, but clearly what we see in these last what? Five years, is a China that’s become much more economically assertive and militarily aggressive in the Indo-Pacific region. And so what will happen over time? The reality is that it won’t just be China and the US contending, it will be the other rising powers in this increasing … what they call multipolar world.

Curtis Chin:                           They will also have to contend with a rising China. One day we’ll see India come into its own, we will see Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia come into its own. How will China engage with an India, with an Indonesia, with a stronger ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asia Nations? How will they deal with this? Probably one of their biggest headaches is their friend, North Korea. At the end of the day, I believe, here I’m being hopeful again, I believe that Korea will be united one day, but clearly when it unites, the reality will most likely be a democratic, in a way, westward-oriented democracy, versus the model that China and North Korea itself now present to the world. That’s really what holds back these two nations from coming together, North Korea and South Korea, is China. China would probably prefer kind of a somewhat unstable North Korea on it’s border than a united westward-looking Korea.

Curtis Chin:                           And so China has a lot of headaches to contend with, this trade war is really just one of them. And as you think about the calendar of this year, China has so many worries to contend with. An anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen, I say massacre, Chinese doesn’t like that word, incident, I would say. But when we think about the June 4 anniversary coming up, when you think about labor unrest in China, Xi Jinping is in a difficult situation, and maybe in some ways much less secure and stable than he would like the world to think he is. And so this trade war at a time of an already slowing but still growing Chinese economy, is not good for him either. And so maybe he will pursue the route of again, trying to unite the Chinese people in a very nationalistic way. You’re seeing some of the rhetoric coming out of China, “China will never back down.” Very nationalistic, trying to unite his own people against an enemy, when the reality that maybe his biggest challenge is what’s happening at home, in his country.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Thanks. I could probably talk to you about this all day I think, it’s so may fascinating different areas we could go to, but of course you’re a busy man, you’ve got things to do. So as I always do, very clunkily segue to the fun part of the show. I get a lot of good feedback on this really lame question that I ask everyone. But of course you’re an American guest on our show, just curious about the three Australians that are coming to Ambassador Curtis Chin’s barbecue and why? And I should disclose, earlier he said, “What if I can’t think of three Australians?” I said, “Well, just do your best.”

Curtis Chin:                           Yeah. What if I can’t think of three Australian? But yeah, I kind of laughed when you asked me that question earlier, because in the United States when we think of Australians, they’re like people we’ve taken from Australia like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, but I think … wasn’t Keith actually born in New Zealand? But again, I think they live in Tennessee right now. So I’m going to cheat and only give you two, but because they live in Tennessee, I bet they have some of the best barbecue in the United States. So I’d certainly love to have them because then maybe we wouldn’t talk politics, or we wouldn’t talk about China and the US, and we’d just have a great time …

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, it’s funny you should say that …

Curtis Chin:                           … and enjoy American-Australia hospitality.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s funny you should say talking about Americans stealing Australians, because Australia is very famous for stealing New Zealanders like Russell Crowe. So it’s sort of … it’s all just [crosstalk 00:52:52].

Curtis Chin:                           That’s right. I think Keith Urban, I think he’s really a New Zealander. I don’t know what he is, but …

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’m not sure, but that’s a cute …

Curtis Chin:                           Nicole Kidman is Australian for sure …

Misha Zelinsky:                  She’s absolutely Aussie.

Curtis Chin:                           … and maybe they both Americans, I don’t know. But let me close by just saying that US-Australian relationship is a great one, it’s a solid one. I think United States, we can learn from Australia. I mean, look at your economy, you haven’t had a recession in a long time. A lot though has been driven by China, and so also how will Australia deal with this evolving economic world. Australia also, I think for a while, kept changing its prime ministers, I don’t know. It seems like there was a new one all the time, but maybe that’s also a broader point for all of us, that no matter who’s in charge things will be okay if we leave it to our people to run things, just American, Australia, Chinese whoever. They just want to move things forward, but maybe it’s the politics that gets in the way of everything. And sometimes when government does nothing, maybe things just move on forward.

Misha Zelinsky:                  A very positive message of hope to finish on there, Curtis. Thank you so much for joining Diplomates, mate.

Curtis Chin:                           All right, my pleasure. Take care.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Take care, mate.