cald logoSpeech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha – Leader of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka

On ‘Asia’s Political and Security Environment: Avenues for Inter-Regional Cooperation

At the 6th meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

On ‘Global Power Shift: Implications for Asia-Europe Relations’

November 9th 2013

Two weeks ago I was at a seminar in Rio de Janeiro, arranged by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, on the topic of responses to the emergence of bipolarity, in terms of the United States and China. I was there when I got details of this discussion, and it struck me that the different ways in which the topic, essentially the same topic, was phrased represented two different views of the world, or rather of how we relate to each other in the same world.

 This factor was indeed the subject of my presentation at that seminar, the difference between the oppositional view of the world, in terms of Western philosophy, and the more inclusive Eastern one. That first perspective, discussed by Tagore a century ago, when he advised Japan against adopting the Western ‘selfish separation of exclusiveness…in the name of false patriotism, it engenders hatred against other countries at times leading to conquest by war’ was conceptualized by Nirmal Verma when he spoke of ‘the European notion of the “other”, an inalienable entity external to oneself, which was both a source of terror and an object of desire’.

The alternative view of the world is one based on circles, concentric and overlapping, which encourages inclusive perspectives. That is the view which should inform our discussions, given their basis in our shared visions of and for Asia and Europe, those large and heterogeneous entities. We should be seeking what we have in common, and how we can expand areas of shared objectives rather than seeing things in terms of absolutes and of zero sum situations.

Central to our discussions of course is China, as the President of Liberal International, Hans van Baalen, just indicated, in beginning his presentation with its significance. But I would also stress what he said later, that our discussions should be about China, and they should be about Democracy.

This is a vital factor, but I am old enough to remember how the latter was considered totally unimportant in the bad old days of the Cold War, when China’s discovery of the free market was considered enough, and its authoritarian political dispensation considered almost an asset. Indeed, one of the saddest statements I have heard from a representative of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which we look to as a celebrant of freedom, was the assertion that it was not at all worrying to claim that economic development was a priority and political freedom could wait. This was in the context of a Sri Lankan politician suggesting that what had happened in China, and in South Korea under its military dictators, and more recently in Vietnam, should be a model for us too. To find that acceptable seemed to me a betrayal.


But there are other betrayals, the other side of the same coin perhaps, that we also need to guard against. The background papers we were given at this meeting, in discussing the recent elimination from the German Parliament of the Free Democrat Party, suggested that it had perhaps lost its way, ignoring its commitment to civil liberties and free markets and retreating instead ‘in recent years to an obsessive focus on tax cuts’. Even worse, it transpired that it had received a large donation from elements benefited by cuts it introduced.

Liberals need to be careful about this sort of behavior, this sort of perspective. While we must work towards expanding trade relations, as Sir Graham Watson, President of ALDE, so eloquently put it this morning, we should remember that encouraging more business does not mean fulfilling the agendas of businessmen. That is the business of conservatives, whereas the Liberal commitment to free trade, and in particular small and medium enterprises, is born of its commitment to the wider prosperity such trade should engender. We must not fall into the trap that was described by John Galbraith at the first meeting of Liberal International I attended, when he said the Republicans believed that the poor were not working because they had too much money (hence the desire for cuts in welfare measures) while the rich were not working because they had too little (hence the claim that tax cuts were essential).

Liberals are not Republicans or Conservatives, and they should not lose sight of their key principles. So, while certainly we must affirm our commitment to the free market, we must affirm that in this our primary objective is enhancing opportunities for all, not wealth for an elite. And while we affirm our commitment to democracy, and indeed grassroots democracy with consultation of communities, we must also realize that we should not allow it to be used as a tool to do down countries of which we disapprove, just as other standards were used to denigrate other countries, even though they upheld democracy, in the awful confrontations of the Cold War.

And that brings me to the other country that we also need to focus on in our concern for building up circles of common interest, circles that overlap. I refer to India, which was denigrated in the eighties as being inefficient and unproductive as compared to China, whereas the real reason for such denigration was that it was perceived as a Soviet ally. As Khun Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister of Thailand, noted this morning, the key to perspectives then was not democracy or human rights, but rather the military alliances the West had set up, and in particular the South East Asian Treaty Organization, which is why the military dictatorships in Pakistan were privileged and India condemned.

Certainly we all now know the negative effects of the statist socialism that dominated India and Sri Lanka and many other former colonies that came to independence in the days of the socialist consensus in the West, just after the Second World War. But privileging authoritarianism as the answer to promote economic development is an error, and I hope there are not many FNS representatives who uphold that perspective. For certainly, while there are many things about China that we should respect, authoritarianism is not one of them.

But hypocrisy is not the way to deal with authoritarianism, in a context in which ruthlessness and violations of human rights are manifold in the West as well. Europe in general I should say has a better record in this regard than the United States, but its failure to apply the same standards to the US as it does to other countries vitiates its integrity. Certainly, the failure to demand justice with regard to the military aggression, without UN approval, that was applied to Iraq and other countries makes a nonsense of criticism of China about its own unilateral actions, as we have heard with regard to the South China Sea.

In this context, I was struck by Jun Abad’s assertion that one of the potential flash points in the region was North Korea. I would agree, but we also need to think of similar idiosyncratic elements elsewhere. Recently, on the long journeys to and from South America, watching films which I rarely otherwise do, I was struck by two very similar dramas, both about the White House being taken over by terrorists.

On the way back I saw ‘Olympus has fallen’, about how North Koreans took over the White House, and tried to use its nuclear technology against America itself. The film was of course fantasy, with one brave agent saving the country and the President, but it had its parallel in ‘White House Down’, which I saw on the way out. The difference there was that the terrorists were led by the US Chief of Security, who was an extremist who disapproved of the Obama style black President, who was again served by a brave white agent working on his own.

Hollywood indeed has made much recently of individuals within the services fighting against what is essentially the old Military Industrial Complex President Eisenhowever first identified. This affirmation of American decency, associated with liberalism as opposed to the fundamentalists who seem to dominate American agendas now, is the stuff of the Bourne Syndrome, of Tom Cruise and even of Bruce Willis in his latest incarnation along with the delightful Helen Mirren. Significantly, the agenda of the absolutists they oppose, as that of the terrorists who took down the While House, was not a million miles away from the Israeli agenda, with the nukes being sent against Iran and similar countries, again stopped by a last minute cancellation by computer code.

Of course suggesting that North Korea and Israel are the same is absurd, but certainly Hollywood was is totally preposterous in suggesting that there are some similarities – most startlingly, in real life, that  they both have nuclear capability, derived with the blessings of their patrons. And while Israel is a democracy and North Korea nothing of the sort, we also know that, while Chinese policies are not dictated by North Korea, Israel certainly has a seminal influence on how the United States behaves.

Fundamentalism of all sorts then needs to be guarded against, not just the fundamentalisms we deplore. And so too all unilateralism must be opposed, and we need to work together to overcome the tendency to assume that our own interests are sacrosanct and we can ignore the views of the world in pursuing them, whether it be with regard to the South China Sea or Syria.

Earlier this week, in Sri Lanka, the head of the World Intellectual Property Organization spoke of the increasing incapacity of multilateral agencies to respond swiftly to problems. So countries tended to produce their own solutions, often having recourse to bilateral arrangements. But there was also an increasing tendency to work through what he termed plurilateralism, namely regional or special interest groupings. Unfortunately, while Asia and what Khun Kasit recalled as the world of the Non-Aligned are not very good at this, as we can see from the failure to use institutions like the G 17, the power houses in this regard are the clubs of the powerful, such as the G 7 or the European Union.

We have to be careful then about plurilateralism, as opposed to multilateralism, since it might have recourse to othering, to seeing the club as a means of keeping others out. That is why gatherings like this are so important, because we should think about how the clubs can work through overlapping circles as opposed to polar or less rigid opposites.

In this context, let me make some suggestions, bearing in mind that I am an adviser whose advice is never taken. Despite this, I would like to suggest that ASEAN should think of expanding, not just through special status to the big countries in the region, China and Japan and India, but through networking also with the smaller countries, and in particular with the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

SAARC as you know is perhaps the least successful of all regional bodies, not least because of the seminal tensions between India and Pakistan. Given too the massive size of India as compared with the other countries of South Asia, it is difficult to develop greater cooperation since the others fear being swamped. But sometimes you can solve a problem by expanding its scope, and it would seem to me that this is how SAARC can develop, by strengthening ties with South East Asia, so that, in moving towards the greater experience you have in promoting trade and investment, we also reduce the relative weight of India. At the same time, such expansion would also provide greater opportunities for the smaller countries of ASEAN that might otherwise feel diffident about the enormous capacity of India and China and Japan on their own.

The European Union can help in this regard by promoting regional connections, rather than the bilateral agreements which have been mentioned today. At the same time, this should be in the context of greater cooperation with regard to the other security issues that have been raised here, in particular environmental security. You have good practices in Europe in this regard, though I should note that I wish there were greater stress on renewable energy, without restrictions on the technology in this regard that Asia has developed. Cooperation that helps to change attitudes in this area would certainly be invaluable, in a context in which there is destructive use of fossil fuels, and concomitant contribution to climate change.

As Europe found, cooperation and openness with regard to trade swiftly changes attitudes to traditional security issues. We should think not in terms of containment, which sadly dominates discourse in many quarters given the global power shift, and resentments about this in many countries, but rather of inclusiveness, of trying to understand the aspirations of all, and working out how these can be fulfilled without crushing those of the less powerful. I go back then to the point made by Galbraith, and would suggest that the pursuit, not of equality, that deadly chimaera, but of equity be a cardinal principle in our approach to security as well as other concerns. We should work not towards making the powerful more powerful, by alliances that develop their strengths, but rather towards ensuring space for all to fulfil their own large or limited potential.