Straws in the wind? Why dialogue might trump discord in 2023

Three developments in recent months provide hope. Can others around the world take inspiration?

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets China's departing Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in Beijing last month. Reuters
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Shortly after being re-elected to the Brazilian presidency late last year, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made a speech in which he reaffirmed his wider vision. “We spend trillions of dollars on wars that just bring destruction and death while 900 million people across the world don’t have food to eat,” he said. Instead, he pledged “to help construct a global order that is peaceful and based on dialogue, multilateralism, and multipolarity".

A global order based on dialogue – that seems like a far reach after a year in which Russia invaded Ukraine, American hawks who sound as though they actively want war with China shouted ever louder, and well more than 100,000 might have died in internal conflicts in Myanmar and Ethiopia.

But we should never give up on dialogue. It has ways of emerging in the most unpromising and unlikely of circumstances, as three examples from recent months show.

In Malaysia, the once-dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) demonised the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) for decades. Any government that includes the DAP, Umno leaders claimed, would lead the country’s majority ethnic Malays to lose their special legal protections. The Malay culture, Islam, the institution of the hereditary rulers: all would be at risk if the country’s Chinese minority had their hands on the levers of power – a claim that played on the traditional Malay insecurity about never being masters in their own homeland.

DAP leaders gave as good as they got, alleging that Umno was irredeemably corrupt, full of kleptocrats, and that its leaders had in fact exploited the Malays during their long time in government from 1957-2018. If, two years ago, you had suggested that the two parties – who both enjoy the support of very significant percentages of the population – could work together, you would have been dismissed as either a fantasist or an ignoramus.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a Malay leader, is reaching out to voters of Chinese heritage. AP Photo

And yet, that is exactly what they have done since last November, as leading members of the unity government headed by Anwar Ibrahim. The DAP is part of Mr Anwar’s pre-election coalition, which needed Umno and others to win a majority in parliament. What initially appeared to be a marriage of (in)convenience has the signs of turning into a new model of interracial co-operation. Umno’s president, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, reportedly wowed a Chinese crowd when he switched from Malay to fluent Mandarin at a by-election meeting in December, saying: "I am Malay. You are Chinese. I am Malaysian. We are all Malaysians, right?" Later Mr Zahid went further, blaming former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for “indoctrinating” Umno members to hate the DAP in the past.

That same month, Britain’s Prospect magazine proved that the chasm between those who supported and those who opposed the UK leaving the EU was possibly bridgeable after all. “We got a Remainer and a Leaver to agree on Brexit – sort of,” ran the headline over the discussion between the peer and former newspaper editor Patience Wheatcroft and another ex-editor, the prominent columnist Iain Martin. Given what fury Britain’s departure has provoked on both sides – relationships and friendships have been near ruined over it – it was remarkable and refreshing to hear the two admit to faults and flaws on both sides and for the question “can a sensible middle ground be found?” even to be asked.

In Australia, the change of government last year led to Foreign Minister Penny Wong making the first ministerial visit to China since relations between the two countries went into a deep freeze in 2020. Ms Wong said Canberra sought more “structured dialogue” with Beijing, while Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese affirmed the importance of the two countries re-establishing a “stable relationship”. In another welcome move, new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang had unexpectedly warm words to offer as he left his previous role as ambassador to the US. “I have been deeply impressed by so many hard-working, friendly and talented American people that I met,” he tweeted, saying that he had “made many friends across the US".

Expect the calls for multipolarity and dialogue – not the same, but certainly complementary concepts – to continue. For just as President Joko Widodo used Indonesia’s chairmanship of the G20 to persuade “his Chinese and American counterparts to find a common ground on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali” in November, as Richard Javad Heydarian wrote in these pages recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to follow a similar path while his country takes its turn as chair this year. Indeed, as many noted, the Bali summit communique echoed Mr Modi’s previous words to Russian President Vladimir Putin when it stated that “today’s era must not be of war” and that “diplomacy and dialogue are vital".

In 2024, the G20 chair will be Brazil, which brings us back to the quote from Mr Lula that I began with. Further, back in office, he is expected to strengthen or reinvigorate the Brics grouping that he co-founded in 2009. As that consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, any progress will naturally rest on positive dialogue, with India keeping its membership of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in a separate sphere; and if the Brics regain momentum, it will only be helped by the fact that in 2025 another member, South Africa, takes over the G20.

The G20 is not the be-all-and-end-all, of course, but if it is one major global institution that is set to pursue a course of diplomacy and dialogue for the foreseeable future then that, after the gloom of 2022, is one cause for optimism in 2023. A Happy New Year to all readers.

Published: January 04, 2023, 4:00 AM