Speech by H. E. José Ramos-Horta,

Former President of Timor-Leste (2007-2012)
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1996)

At the College of Defense Studies (CDS) – National Defense University (NDU)
Beijing, 17th October 2014


Ladies and gentlemen,
Commandant of CDS General Lan Zhitao,
Ambassador Viky Tchong and Political Counselor Prof. Loro Horta,


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to speak at this prestigious military academy where my son Loro was a distinguished graduate student. Loro has become a true China scholar and I am very proud of him.

While I am not an expert like Loro, having visited and read about China over several decades, I might claim some understanding of this great, culturally rich and complex country.

I first visited China in early 1976 – soon after the death of Premier Zou En Lay and just before the passing away of the Great Helsman, Chairman Mao.

(I share the same birthday as Chairman Mao – 26th December; and just one day after Christ. But with time difference, we should say, I was born also on the same day as Christ. If by referring to this coincidence I appear to claim merit by association, I apologise for my obvious lack of modesty).

What was the China that I saw in the early 1970’s and what I have been able to observe in the following decades is simply mesmerising. I will not repeat here what has been described in countless essays and books about the dizzying Chinese economic and social transformation in just three decades.

China is now a rising Asian power and might, in a not too distant future, achieve super-power status, equal to the US in both soft and hard power, with global reach and influence. Please note that I’m saying China might achieve super-power status. I didn’t say it will be a super-power.

Much depends on how Chinese leaders manage the numerous internal social, economic, political and security challenges; and how they manage the multi-faceted relations with their immediate Northeast Asia neighbors (Japan and Korea), their other Asian neighbours, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and others.

While during much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, major economic and maritime powers, be the U.K. or the US, imposed their will and rules over much of the world via their impressive navy fleets, world power is now much more diffused and shared by a growing number of assertive regional powers.

So increasingly regional and global influence cannot be achieved through a navy flottilla; diplomatic influence, trade and economic advantages cannot be extracted via coercion or gun boat diplomacy but rather via charm diplomacy, FDIs, scholarships and investment in education, science and technology.

This is in part what China has been doing going back to the 60’s; for instance, with the building of the “Tanzam” railway linking Tanzania and Zambia. However, as much as there was strong political will then to do good and gain influence overseas, China was severely constrained by its limited economic and financial capabilities and internal upheavals.

A major obstacle back then, blocking China’s influence in Asia and Africa, was the Cold War suspicions and rivalries, fear of communism fuelled by Western media; all this severely curtailed China’s space of intervention.

The situation is dramatically different today as it has been in the last 20 years or so with China’s growing economy and financial clout.


Ladies and gentlemen,
we are living in times of great challenges in much of the world but also of hope and optimism for our peoples and our continent.

I’m a frequent visitor to Japan and visited several times the historic city of Hiroshima, toured the Museum that so vividly walks a visitor through the chambers of horror caused by the one single atomic bomb dropped on that city one clear day in August 1945 at the end of World War II.

No less heartbreaking have been my visits to the Holocaust Museum in Berlin that reminds us of the systematic cleansing of millions of Jews in Europe by the Third Reich. In both cities we are sadly reminded of human beings’ capacity to inflict destruction and pain on fellow human beings.

And Japanese people should not be reminded only of the horrors of the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  They should be truthfully educated about what brought about the destruction and death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; as much as we must all revisit Hiroshima time and again, we should remember time and again the suffering and destruction caused by the Japanese Imperial Army in many parts of Asia during the five years of aggression and occupation – but remembering the past is not to instigate anger and resentment but rather to discourage leaders and nations from ever again going to war against one another.

I beg to disagree with a number of scholars who paint too a rosy picture about the emerging 21st Century Asia. Time and again we hear the claim that world power is shifting to Asia. I believe this is overly exaggerated and misleading.

The challenges we face in Asia are immense and complex. I would dare say that our region is the most dangerous in the world, the most militarized, most nuclearized, with complex land and maritime border disputes, regional rivalries, ethnic and religious conflicts that have exploded frequently in and among states.

Our challenges are overwhelming, daunting. But we can overcome these challenges by pooling resources, solutions, in partnerships, without exclusions.

Against the many negatives facts and complex challenges cited above, there are many good news, dramatic positive transformations.

Over the last 30 years hundreds of millions of people have been freed from poverty, in particular in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, The Philippines, Thailand; others, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Singapore continue to outshine much of the world in science, technology and innovation.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, Asian economies have become the powerhouse of global economy.

China, the Republic of Korea, India and Indonesia have been growing at annual rates of between 6 and 10 percent for sustained long periods.

The economies of China, Korea, Japan and India put together already account for over 14 trillion dollars of annual GDP.

ASEAN, another fast growing economic region, represents some 2 trillion dollars of combined annual GDP.

Asia economic powerhouses put together are already a formidable force, side by side with the 16 trillion dollars of combined output in EU countries and the 15 trillion dollars US economy, according with IMF estimates for 2010.

And, every day, the sustained high economic performance of leading Asian countries help pulling smaller neighbours into the path of growth and economic development.

Two decades ago Profs. Barry Busan and Gerald Segal wrote their influential article Rethinking East Asian Security in which they argued that the future of Asia would be one resembling Europe in the late19th and late 20th centuries.

In a nutshell, Asia ‘s rising powers will compete with each other and form alliances against one another. The rise of nationalism would further precipitate tensions. Just like in Europe decades ago nationalism and rapid industrialization will make Asia very unstable and prone to conflict. So the prognosis goes.

Will Asia’s future mirror Europe’s past? Any good argument must have a strong element of truth and accuracy and Busan and Siegel raised some valid points. However, I believe that Asia can learn with the mistakes of the West and Asia’s future does not necessarily needs to be Europe’s past provided Asian leaders and people are willing to learn and respect one another. Granted, this is easier said than done or we could say this is wishful thinking.

Recent events in areas such as the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea seem at first glance to vindicate the more pessimistic predictions.

However, the fact of the matter is that Asian nations like China and Japan have so far avoided military confrontation.

While some clashes did occur in recent past between Thailand and Cambodia they were quickly contained. While Malaysia and Indonesia had a naval standoff in 2004 over disputed waters, the incident was resolved peacefully without the loss of life. Furthermore, the two neighbors have resolved most of their border and maritime overlapping claims. Singapore and Malaysia have peacefully solved the disputed Pedra Branca.

Early this year Indonesia and the Philippines settled and agreed upon their sea boundaries. Bangladesh and Myanmar have also settled their maritime border this year and also this year the 40-year old dispute between India and Bangladesh was finally settled.

While there are serious tensions between China and Vietnam there is also a long history between the two nations. In the late 19thcentury China sent its army to fight alongside the Vietnamese against French conquest. Between 1945-1974 thousands of Chinese fought alongside the Vietnamese against the French and Americans.

Make no mistake there are some serious issues between China and Vietnam that will take a long time to address. But, while everybody has heard about the two countries dispute in the South China Sea, very few have heard about the successful settlement of maritime borders in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The Gulf was divided 47 percent for China and 53 for Vietnam. Last month a senior Vietnamese official visited China in an attempt to reduce tensions. According to both Chinese and Vietnamese media reports they talks were quite positive.

Many have been predicting conflict between China and India. As the recent visit of President Xi to India showed both sides are eager to embrace the immense opportunities that trade and other areas can provide.  The potential for the two most populous nations on earth is endless and far outweigh the benefits of any conflict.

While tensions remain and sporadic exchange of gunfire still occur time to time along the Indo-Pakistani long border, a conflict that has lasted for decades has seen in recent years a significant decline with trade and people to people relations on the rise.

Many made the most dire predictions on the future of Indonesia following the collapse of the military regime in 1998-1999. Today Indonesia is a stable and relatively prosper country. Indonesian leaders were able to address with wisdom and courage the 30 year old Acech conflict and reached a mutually acceptable agreement that several years later is still in effect and has brought visible improvements to the lives of the people of Acech.

Some pseudo-academics predicted or wished that my young country would soon become Asia’s “failed State”. As UN, ADB and WB reports demonstrate we are now a low middle-income country with one of the fastest growing economies on the planet. In 12 years of independence, ladies and gentlemen, Timor-Leste climbed more than 30 slots in the UN Human Development Index.

Asians have all the reasons in the world to be optimistic about their future. The Asia I grew up was one of conflict and extreme poverty and Timor-Leste, the remotest part of this vast region, is quickly catching up with our much older and larger neighbors.

But, the Asia in which I grew up was also an Asia of extreme resilience and above all of hope in the face of adversity.

It was this hope that saw Korea emerge from the ashes of a devastating war to become an industrial powerhouse in only 30 years.

It was this hope and resilience that saw China moved from a country marked by war, humiliation and poverty to become a first class world power respected and admired by all, even by its enemies.

But, make no mistake; there are many challenges ahead. The one that concerns me the most is the rise of nationalism and the use and abuse of history for political ends.

Ladies and gentlemen,
If we look at history be it European or Asian, ultra nationalism has never produced anything good. In Europe it led to two world wars and the Holocaust. Ultra nationalism saw at the close of the 20th century the atrocities in the Balkans. In Asia it led to despicable acts such as the rape of Nanjing. In Africa it led to the hells of Rwanda and Darfur.

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote nearly a century ago “Ignorance and fanatism are the biggest enemies of humanity”.

It is vital that the current wave of nationalism in certain Asian countries is reversed. As the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam early this year demonstrate, things can easily get out of control.

It is time to calm the waters, bring down the rhetoric and think twice about instigating nationalism for political ends – and it is time to take the South China Sea and other disputes out of the streets and for diplomats to find viable solutions.

Arguments over historical claims are never ending, for each side has its own history to tell. Hence I believe that Claimant States should consider a grand agreement on a Joint Economic Cooperation and Resource Sharing encompassing the areas in dispute.

An Asian Fund for Climate Change Mitigation and Sustainable Development could be considered whereby funds generated from the development of the disputed areas are invested in all of Asia and not just shared among the claimant States.

In Europe, Germany has shown that the wrong ways of the past can be abandoned and peace embraced. Germany, the country that started two world wars and killed 6 million Jews, is today a proud and generous nation in peace with itself and its neighbors.

We should not follow blindly Western or any other models for that matter and I totally understand that some of us maybe rather tired of hypocritical sermons from the West.

However, we should neither ignore the many lessons the old continent learned after much bloodshed and suffering. It would be very foolish on our part.

My country and Indonesia have in less than a generation overcome our tragic history. Lets not forget the past, but lets not live in it or be hostage of it.

Asia’s present is impressive and its future looks very promising. There is no reason not to be optimistic but only if Asian peoples and leaders show courage and stesmanship, embrace the future, and refuse to be hostage to the past of wars.

Ladies and gentlemen I lost three brothers and a sister during the occupation of our country, I lived for 24 years in exile and my son Loro, one of your best students, was born in exile in Mozambique.

My elderly mother, getting close to 90, survived the Japanese occupation of our country – yes Timor-Leste was once invaded and occupied by Japan and an estimated 10% of the population died then. My mother lost all her immediate family except for one sister. And she survived the Indonesian occupation and witnessed the loss of her own sons and a daughter, my brothers and a sister.

But today I and our nation enjoy the best possible relationship with Japan and with our Indonesian brothers and sisters – and Indonesia is today one of our closest friends.

ASEAN will soon become a “Community” and a common economic space and closer integrations is likely to continued to accelerate. ASEAN is one of the most diverse organizations on the planet. Among its members states are Buddhist majority states, Muslim majority states, Christian majority nations like the Philippines, Industrialized nations like Singapore and rural ones like Laos and Myanmar. Some are democracies; some are ruled by one party regime. Many have a long history of conflict. But the fact that they have been able to reach the current stage of peace and integrations is remarkable.

I’m confident in the future of the Asia and the 21st Century might be the Asia’s Century.