The fabled Chinese military sage Sun Tzu (c. 544–496 BCE) began his Art of War with a sober maxim: war determines the course of a people and the destiny of a nation. It is “a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.” In other words, war should not be a tool for jingoistic distractions or corporate and media exploitation. In principle, almost everyone agrees that diplomacy must be exhausted in every respect before war is considered. It is therefore a relief that US president Joe Biden emphasized “relentless diplomacy” in his first speech at the United Nations on 21 September. This term was widely read as code for an intensifying, multifaceted confrontation (or at least a confrontational approach) with China that would stop short of outright war.
There is a tension between the image that the Biden administration wishes to present to the world and the rapidly shifting context in which this projected image is being consumed. The New York Times sums it up:
The speech was a grand homage to internationalism and a stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s undiplomatic bluster. But it came amid growing complaints that some of Mr. Biden’s signature policy moves carried echoes of Mr. Trump’s approach. . . . Biden allies say they find the comparisons overblown. But some admit that global concerns about whether Mr. Trump, or someone like him, might succeed Mr. Biden and reverse his efforts are valid.(The New York Times)
Biden’s “relentless diplomacy” is best represented by two bodies: the Quad and the newly formed AUKUS. Both groups embody the US’s attempt to prevent China from not just any move toward armed conflict, but suppressing any move by China against America’s democratic allies in the Asia-Pacific, including Taiwan. This doctrine of multilateral alliances is certainly more coherent than the capricious and temperamental nature of the Trump regime.
Yet Biden’s stake on “relentless diplomacy” suffers from similar problems that dogged his otherwise admirable withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, AUKUS has little room for subtlety and nuance and almost inevitably cements a narrative or perception of Anglophone governments as “anti-China”. As a consequence it is being crudely executed, having disregarded considerations such as France’s stake in Australian naval defense, NATO and the EU’s balancing act with China, ASEAN and other Asian countries’ economic proximity to China, and even the pride of India, a Quad member that possesses nuclear weapons. The reaction to Biden’s approach has therefore been mixed. In rhetoric, Biden’s diplomacy may not be “America First,” but in execution the comparisons are not without merit.
Most problematic of all, the Biden administration’s diplomatic approach has already created friction, even if it is not armed. It assumes the existence, necessity, and even desirability of a certain kind of conflict, be it confrontation with China as an existential threat or elbowing aside allies like France, the ambitions of other allies being seen as inconveniences to the bigger goal. For Biden’s critics, this style of diplomacy is still looking for a fight, and therefore resembles a more subtle kind of imperialism than the jingoism of Trump.
“Conflict avoidance,” which goes one step beyond conflict mediation, could nudge the Sino-American relationship, the most crucial and high-stakes bilateral relationship in the world, in a positive direction. The notion of conflict avoidance is not new. One could say that General Mark Milley’s 8 January call to General Li Zuocheng, during which Milley reassured Li that the domestic political turmoil in the US would not lead to an American attempt to attack China, constituted conflict avoidance. Nevertheless, Milley did say that if there was any American attack, Li would be the first to know. This otherwise reasonable guarantee presupposes a context in which any outbreak of war is an extension of an already conflict-charged state of affairs. To notify someone that one intends to fight them might be helpful in any negotiations during or after the fight, but it still means that there will be a fight.
The Samvad initiative, launched in 2015 by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) and International Vivekananda Foundation (IVF), is centered on the historical dialogue between the Buddhist and Hindu schools of religion. It is focused on religious principles of exclusivism versus pluralism, as the 2019 Religious Round Table on Conflict Avoidance and Inter-Religious Understanding states:
The RRT is of the view that in the contemporary world no religion can claim exclusivity and assert that its fundamentals cannot be questioned by other faiths, particularly if such fundamentals affect the other faiths and their adherents.
The RRT therefore commends that all religions need to foster the discipline of dialogue within and develop internal tolerance without which there cannot be external tolerance.
The RRT appeals to all religious leaders that we need to build a tolerant world first and then move towards a world where each religion accepts that other religions are also capable of leading human beings to good conduct and salvation.(Samvad: Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative for Conflict Avoidance – Inter-Religious Understanding and Interdependent Sustainability, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, September 6 and 7, 2019)
The statement above is religious in nature, but resembles “first principles” that could orient an entire community’s approach to relating with others. Reframed in geopolitical language, perhaps this excerpt of the Samvad statement could be: “In the contemporary world, no country can claim exclusive right to domination of any sphere of potential conflict, especially if they fundamentally affect other countries. All countries need to foster the discipline and willingness to dialogue in as many channels as possible to develop tolerance among its internal leadership. Finally, all national leaders need to move toward a world where a plurality of political views, even those that are disagreeable, do not immediately form the justification for confrontation or war.”
Could China and America conduct diplomacy along these lines in good faith? It is not impossible. Chinese diplomats continue to insist that China is not interested in “world domination,” while the Biden administration has stated that it does not wish for a 21st century Cold War. Such a reworking of Samvad’s proposed guidelines would not be not contradictory to democratic values: Samvad was at first an Indo-Japanese initiative that came to be shaped by input from representatives of Asian countries such as Mongolia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Each Samvad event has stressed the importance of plurality, with no single dominant voice or lobby. Policymakers on all sides will have to assess for themselves whether they and their counterparts truly believe in what is required for this ideal of conflict avoidance and peaceful coexistence.
It is easy to accuse one side of hegemonic behavior; but much like tackling the climate crisis, mutual commitment could lead to mutually beneficial results and therefore stronger trust. This becomes a virtuous circle, as opposed to the negative spiral Sino-American relations are in at present. It is a common refrain at the UN that the climate crisis should transcend politics, since partisan conflict will hinder big-picture cooperation. But conflict need not be an assumed given in other fields of international relations. Even if new paradigms might sound outlandish or politically unpalatable, they should at least be seriously considered, lest a dearth of imagination lead the world to an even darker place.
At U.N., Biden Calls for Diplomacy, Not Conflict, but Some Are Skeptical (The New York Times)
In Biden’s Foreign Policy, Friends and Foes Claim Echoes of Trump (The New York Times)
US general defends ‘secret’ phone calls with China (BBC News)
Samvad: Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative for Conflict Avoidance – Inter-Religious Understanding and Interdependent Sustainability, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, September 6 and 7, 2019
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