It seems everywhere you go these days China is the hot topic of discussion. Everyone seems fascinated by every detail of the Middle Kingdom, underlined by the allure of access to potentially the world's largest super markets. Whether ranging from investment in offshore resource companies to alleged cyber-espionage, or China's 21st century military and strategic intentions, China's future looms large in global foreign and defence policy debates and Australia is no exception.
For the past decade or so, the world has been engaged in a rekindled diplomatic love affair with China. It began not long after the so-called ending of the Cold War - whenever that was - as global geopolitics changed pace. Engagement with old foes and former enemies alike rapidly replaced containment, and new mutual pursuits of security and stability, through mutually beneficial bilateral international relationships, exploded throughout the globe.
In the aftermath of 50 years of global ossification, everyone expected the old Cold War stalwarts of the US or newly-emerging Russia, to take the global political ball and run with it, and assumed both would probably fill the inevitable post-Cold War power vacuum. By the late 1990s however, it was becoming increasing clear that the opposite was the case, and neither were up to the task. International relations as the world had become accustomed to was in disarray, or was it?
China's past future reflections
At the same time the world watched, and waited with baited breath, as the other Cold War survivor, China, set about reclaiming its territories and expanding its territorial sovereignty: first Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, and then Macao from Portugal in 1999.
As the British entourage sailed out of Hong Kong harbour amidst global media fanfare, the big question on everybody’s lips was which way would China go? Would it follow the Soviet implosion? Would it start to lean towards the West? Two years later both were moot points when Macao's handing back hardly rated a mention anywhere in the international political arena.
Western interests scrambled to find substantive post-Cold War foreign policies, especially those better able to cope with a changing world political order. China on the other hand, adhered to its Confucianist-based foreign policy principles known as the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence that had ostensibly not changed since 1955.
(The Five Principles remain: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in respective internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. In 2004 the Chinese government released an updated version with additional concepts such as taking advantage of military superiority.)
The expected Chinese war machine had not come in guns blazing as many had predicted, amid seemingly western indifference to the proceedings themselves. By 2000, it was rapidly becoming obvious that both were key benign components China could publicly manipulate. So much so that by 2010, “brand China” is undisputedly a profitable and marketable commodity.
Movie successes including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (although Taiwanese), are accompanied by the Hollywoodisation of Chinese leading actors such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and the introduction of Mandarin language into mainstream western media entertainment. Chinese design is the latest aesthetic, and Chinese characters are the tattooed body art of choice among western women.
In art galleries, exhibitions and museums around the world, Chinese art and archaeological treasures share spaces next to western counterparts, and the Terracotta Warriors are now almost as well known as the pyramids. Chinese tenors, classical Chinese music orchestras, traditional acrobatic shows and opera productions, all undertake sell-out global tours while other Chinese community cultural traditions, such as bestowing dragon blessings on newly-opened businesses, are on the increase.
At the same time, China has established its version of Catholicism, appointing Bishops and training clergy, and Chinese Christian aid is expanding. In Kenya for example, western missionary observations suggest 75 per cent of some water pipeline projects are controlled by Chinese Christian interests. China also has newly emerging philanthropic pursuits including building medical centres and schools in poverty-stricken nations most recently in Timor-Leste.
Intellectualism has flourished, and proactive expansion of China’s offshore international education policies seems aimed toward a more inclusive future global think-tank arena, although China has been intensely studying all aspects of other nations since the 1950s anyway. Confucianist Institutes, ostensibly Chinese language and cultural learning centres, are popping up throughout the world in places as eclectic as the middle of rural Wales to Perth in Western Australia, or New York City.