The language of modern-day diplomats and having mutual respect

By Alexander Rheeney 27 January 2019, 12:00AM

Having worked for Her Majesty’s diplomatic service in my former life as Second Secretary (Political & Public Affairs) at the British Embassy in Port Moresby, P.N.G., a statement from the Chinese Ambassador – His Excellency Wang Xuefeng – literally knocked me off my chair! 

In the world of diplomacy and international relations, composure and having the ability to remain calm and poised in stressful and difficult situations, are considered very highly when one is on foreign service deployment. 

In fact the statement issued by the Ambassador titled “Remove the ignorant and ridiculous remarks, let the flag of China-Samoa friendship fly higher”, should have set off the alarm bells within the Chinese Embassy. But it appears Beijing doesn’t have oversight on the activities of their top diplomat to Samoa. 

My school of thought tells me His Excellency crossed the line, when he personally criticised the concerns raised by Member of Parliament, Olo Fonoti Vaai. 

The Ambassador said in his statement that the Embassy, “would rather ignore the matter because it would be a waste of time to respond to some individual’s groundless, ignorant and ridiculous remarks”.

Here is the full quote: “In fact, before the article was published, Chinese Embassy was contacted by Samoa Observer for comments on an individual’s remarks regarding Chinese flag on the project site of the gymnasium at Tuanaimato. 

At that time, Chinese Embassy would rather ignore the matter because it would be a waste of time to respond to some individual’s groundless, ignorant and ridiculous remarks.”

Another quality of a competent diplomat is his or her ability to adapt, accept and respect the cultures, values, political beliefs (and institutions) and economic backgrounds of your host country. 

The Ambassador, in my view, failed the test of cultural adaptability by singling out Olo as an “individual” and going a step further and rubbishing his concerns. Olo is a Member of Samoa’s Parliament and represents the constituencies of Salega East, which consist of Sagone, Fogasavai’i and Vaipu’a. He carries the aspirations of his people and his concerns should and can represent that of his constituency and Samoans generally. His views are important and carry a lot of weight in a democratic nation like Samoa. 

The Ambassador’s use of a Chinese proverb to describe Olo’s criticism can also be seen as being culturally inappropriate and even insulting to the host nation and its people.  

His Excellency stated: “As a Chinese old saying goes: If you only listen to trilling of mole crickets, you will never plant any crops.”

While our readers will appreciate the Ambassador’s correction of the “facts” in relation to the various Chinese government-funded projects, there was no need for His Excellency to take the level of debate down to the sewers, and ridicule and insult a leader of your host nation in the process.

The statement by His Excellency ironically coincided with an analysis published in The Australian newspaper last Friday by Peter Jennings, the former deputy secretary (strategy) in the Australian Department of Defence. See page 14 for the full analysis. 

According to Mr. Jennings, in his dealings with China, he found that the Chinese hold their smaller neighbours with contempt.

“As for mutual respect, in my dealings with the Chinese military I detected a grudging admiration for the professionalism and capabilities of the ADF, but for the most part China regards its smaller neighbours with contempt,” he stated in his commentary.

“As the Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi once famously told Southeast Asian foreign ministers: ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.’

As we saw recently in Nauru at the Pacific Islands Forum and in Port Moresby at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting, China’s contemptuous treatment of Pacific Island leaders is a clear indication that mutual respect is not part of its diplomatic lexicon.”

Did His Excellency’s statement show a blatant lack of mutual respect? It would be most unfortunate if His Excellency choses who to give the “VIP treatment” to within Samoa’s political circles, and deliberately shows a lack of mutual respect towards other Samoan parliamentary leaders on the other side of the political spectrum.

Remember the two golden rules of diplomacy and international relations while residing in a host nation: stay calm and poised in stressful or difficult situations to maintain self control, and appreciate and respect a host nation’s cultures, values, political systems and economic background.

We look forward to the flags of Samoa and China flying higher – as openly expressed by His Excellency – but with mutual respect for each other and the social, cultural and political institutions that define Samoa.

It is the start of another working week. Have a lovely Monday Samoa and God bless.

By Alexander Rheeney 27 January 2019, 12:00AM

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