Beijing recently hosted its first ever Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilization (CDAC) in May 2019. The CDAC marks the culmination of a proposal made by Chinese President Xi Jinping to convene such a conference at the Boao Forum for Asia in 2015.
China’s state media reported that more than 1,000 participants from 47 countries took part. The themes for the CDAC were broad enough for various speakers to share their views and insights. The main theme of the CDAC was on “Pooling the Wisdom of Diverse Civilizations for a Beautiful Asia” with parallel panel discussions revolving around three sub-themes, i.e. “Asian Wisdom to Promote Political Advancement”; “Asian Solutions to Benefit the People”; and, “Asian Community with a Shared Future”. The foreign delegates came from a broad cross-section of society ranging from the government, the media, academia, publication, think-tanks to the cultural, tourism and healthcare sectors. They were largely from Asia (including Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia), Africa, the Middle-East, Europe and even South America.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his welcome address at the opening ceremony where six other visiting foreign dignitaries also made opening remarks, namely, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni; Greek President Karolos Papoulios; Singaporean President Halimah Yacob; Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena; Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan; and Director-General of UNESCO Audrey AzoulayIn. In the evening of the same day, President Xi again gave welcome remarks at the Asian Cultural Carnival, a grand gala event of the CDAC. Xi’s rare public appearances, twice at the same related event in a single day, shows the importance China attaches to the CDAC.
The CDAC marks a concerted effort by Beijing to create a new platform that leverages on China’s more than 5,000-year old ancient civilization to promote cooperation with other countries. The participants to the CDAC did not attempt to define the word “civilization” and, understandably, the organizers kept the meaning broad so as to leave room to include various topics and issues. What is apparently clear is that the CDAC seeks to emphasize the softer aspects of China’s power to complement the harder indicators such as its economic strengths and infrastructure construction prowess that is largely associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. Another civilizational-related platform China is actively driving is The Ancient Civilizations Forum that it has co-initiated with Greece that involves seven other countries of Bolivia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Peru and Armenia which are considered cradles of ancient civilizations. This forum has so far held two ministerial meetings in Greece and Bolivia in 2017 and 2018
Through the CDAC, China is trying to exercise some form of “leadership” among the countries who are open to cooperating with Beijing, and in doing so, Beijing seeks to strengthen its ties with these countries. A number of Chinese participants extolled the value of having a CDAC so that countries can share their wisdom and experiences accumulated over time. Other Chinese speakers reiterated that the Belt and Road Initiative, which China initiated, would bring mutual benefits to participating countries. In this regard, the CDAC appeared geared towards getting participating countries to better understand China’s position on various issues and the rationale behind certain initiatives with a view to getting these countries to perceive China in a more positive light. These objectives have become more important in light of the intensified competition between China and the United States especially over trade and technology. By hosting the CDAC, Beijing seeks to underline the message that countries can better weather
the unpredictability and disruptions caused by the Trump administration by working closer together.
At the same time, China made an effort to address the perception that the CDAC is a platform that is meant exclusively for Asia. As mentioned above, apart from Asia, the participants to the CDAC came from other parts of the world as well. There were even a few American scholars who spoke at the CDAC even though no serving American official was present.
China is likely to ride on the initial success to hold future iterations of the CDAC. From the Southeast Asian perspective, the general message of cooperation across different civilizations in Asia ought to be welcomed. In addition, the stress on civilization-related or softer issues could be a good complement to the harder issues of economic or military cooperation. Such cooperation may even be more pertinent given the increasing strains on society in the age of rising anti-globalization sentiments and rapid technological advances.
At the same time, however, if the emphasis is on achieving the outcomes of how best to meet the needs and expectations of ordinary people who yearn for a better life, then any solution that is derived either from Asian Civilization or non-Asian Civilization should be readily accepted regardless of where it originates from. In this sense, maintaining an open and inclusive approach is key to finding solutions to our current and anticipated future challenges.
Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow, Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared in ISEAS Commentaries.