Asia is a political and not just a geographic concept; it is politics that defines geography.
Asia as a political concept has a history stretching back to at least the late 19th century. I want to focus on the most recent phase in the evolution of the concept of Asia that began in the early 1990s. The notion of Asia that arose in the early 1990s was entangled with, and indeed can hardly be distinguished from, the debate over Asian values that not coincidentally arose at the same time. This is a debate that is far more often talked about than understood. As someone who played a minor role in it, let me give you my perspective.
Geopolitical concerns were the main reason. By the end of the 1980s, the potential for geopolitical complications was high, arising from a combination of factors: the end of the Cold War; consequent Western/American triumphalism; China just beginning to take off as a serious challenge to the West; both US and China freed from constraints of a de facto anti-Soviet alliance, and an inexperienced US administration - until President Bill Clinton was elected in 1993, Democrats had been out of power for 25 years except for the untypical four years under President Jimmy Carter which even Democrats were eager to forget - that seemed more than merely inclined to structure its relationship with China on the basis of the promotion of democracy and human rights. This is the one area that the Chinese leadership would never compromise, as the 1989 Tiananmen incident clearly demonstrated. But Tiananmen also encouraged the new administration to take a hard line towards China. During the campaign, Mr Clinton accused his predecessor of "coddling dictators".
Why were we concerned? US-China relations are the most important axis of East Asian international relations, affecting the entire region.
When they are stable, the region is calm; when US-China relations are roiled, the entire region is unsettled. And the approach towards China apparently preferred by the new administration promised a rocky ride for the entire region so we entered the debate to try to encourage a more complex view of the issue. No one was under any illusion that we could change minds. Our aim was the modest one of buying some time for the passions of a new administration to cool and common sense and the imperatives of realpolitik to prevail. In the meantime, if the new administration needed to work their campaign rhetoric out of their system, it was better that they had a broader target than just China.
The immediate locus of the debate was developments leading up to the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, particularly the Asian Group preparatory meeting held in Bangkok in April 1993. Article 8 of the Bangkok Declaration that emerged out of that meeting was the eye of the storm: "(Ministers and representatives of Asian governments) recognise that while human rights are universal in nature, they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds."
The Bangkok meeting was split on the core issue of the universality or otherwise of human rights and democracy as a political form, the basic division being roughly between the more Western oriented members like Japan and South Korea, and countries like Iran and China, with the majority somewhere in the middle. I played a role in drafting the language of Article 8 which was eventually accepted as a compromise. The approach I took was historical and the text was intended to be, and indeed I still believe is, no more than a simple statement of fact. The idea of "democracy", always a protean term, has evolved, as has the definition of specific rights. And they will continue to change in response to specific developments and not necessarily only in one direction either. Most rights are essentially contested concepts, even something as fundamental as the right to life as evidenced by debates over capital punishment and abortion. Different states of the US have different views on abortion.
Of course all countries hold some values in common, but the commonalities are at such a high level of generality that they generally prescribe nothing of practical significance for how different countries formulate specific policies to solve specific problems or organise themselves. The empirical evidence of our senses is that diversity rather than universality is the most salient characteristic of the world we actually live in as distinct from the world regarded through ideological lens of one sort or another.
To cut a long story short, eventually common sense did prevail and the US and China began again to deal with each other as great powers usually do, that is, pragmatically. US-China relations are too complex to be otherwise. In fact the very complexity of the US-China relationship, the necessity of balancing the multiplicity of interests that characterises the relationship, against each other, sets up a dynamic that propels a movement towards the centre. And this holds true whether one starts from the first premise of human rights and democracy as did the first Clinton administration, or from the first premise of the reality of strategic competition, as did the first George W. Bush administration.
The only questions are how long it will take to reach equilibrium and what collateral damage the two major powers and the rest of us will have to endure in the process. Once common sense reasserted itself, we - and most other countries - ceased to play an active role in the debate which was then of interest primarily to the chattering and scribbling classes who did not really understand what the debate was really about in the first place.
More nuanced debate
HOWEVER, we are now in the midst of a renewed debate over the idea of Asia in a different and I think more complex form. It is no longer a relatively simple debate over values, but a more nuanced debate over the architecture that will define East Asia. Again the geopolitical driver is US-China relations. Washington and Beijing are currently groping towards a new equilibrium, a new modus vivendi, in their relationship with each other and with other countries in East Asia. Post-World War II East Asia was very largely an American creation because it was the US that provided the stability that was the foundation of the growth that is the most salient common characteristic of an otherwise highly diverse region. In this sense the US is an East Asian state or at least an Asia-Pacific state, a concept that now shares a very large common space with the idea of Asia.
But there is now a consensus across the region that while the US is still a very necessary condition for stability, it is no longer a sufficient condition and the US presence needs to be supplemented - supplemented, not supplanted - by some new architecture to preserve stability for growth. This consensus is shared by both China and the US. The extremes of containment of China and displacement of the US from East Asia are both impossible and Beijing and Washington understand this, even though their rhetoric sometimes suggests otherwise. The search for this new architecture is the core strategic issue for our region. No one knows what shape it will take or how long it will take to establish this new architecture, although I think it will be a work of decades and not just a few years. But US-China relations will certainly be the central pillar around which any new architecture will eventually be erected, and when Washington and Beijing reach a new modus vivendi, a new concept of Asia will emerge and we will all have to live with it.
At present, the main choices are between an essentially Sino-centric architecture built around the Asean Plus One Dialogue with China with elements of the Asean Plus Three incorporated, or a more open construct built around the East Asia Summit. But these are by no means the only choices and the situation is still evolving.
Nor have the major actions been consistent. The "new model" of great power relations that China has proposed and the US not entirely rejected, at least implies a legitimate place for the US in East Asia although the specific contours of that place are yet to be determined. But at the same time Chinese leaders have also tried to promote a new security concept based on the principle that Asian problems should be resolved only by Asians. Who is to be regarded as "Asian" is still ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. No one as yet really can predict the final architecture.
Asean is at the centre of this and has been able to establish platforms that could play a supplementary role in channelling US-China relations in more predictable and constructive directions, because US and Chinese interests intersect in South-east Asia; Asean is a relatively neutral body friendly to both; and both the US and China find it useful to use these Asean-created platforms. This minimal role is useful but will not be the decisive factor.
The most important decisions are going to be made in Washington and Beijing, not in Asean capitals or even in Tokyo, New Delhi, Seoul or Canberra. Still it is better to play even such a secondary role than just be a helpless spectator. Whether Asean can continue to play even such a role depends on whether it can remain relatively neutral and that in turn depends on the future of its integration project, particularly economic integration.
The adjustments between the US and China that will have to be made are manifold. I want to focus on just one aspect that I think is most germane to the subject of our discussion. This is what can be termed the psychological factor. China's re-emergence as a major power has been disquieting to many in the West because it challenges in a very fundamental way the Western myth of universality. That myth could only be sustained by a Western dominance that is now ebbing. Yet universality is a mode of thought that the West inherited from its monotheistic and teleological Christian traditions, but is now deeply embedded in even the most secular of Western societies. That mode of thought is not going to disappear even if real power is being redistributed.
The idea that certain political forms are the necessary result of certain historical processes and correlated with certain types of economic systems is one that China fundamentally challenges because in China capitalism flourishes without liberal democracy, and unlike say, Japan, China only wants to be China and has no real desire to be an honorary member of the West.
Of course, the Western view is both parochial and ahistorical. It is parochial because it generalises a universal from the very unique historical contingencies that resulted in the Western form of democracy; ahistorical because it misreads even the West's own history - every Western country was capitalist long before it was ever either liberal or democratic in the sense that the term is now understood by the West.
These are not abstract intellectual considerations because in recent times the claim of the universality of certain values and political forms has been used to justify military interventions to change regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. Of course, no one really believes that China is going to be subject to such kinetic interventions which have been deployed only against the weak, and of course much of Western and specifically American rhetoric about human rights and democracy is only that - mere rhetoric. Yet it is also an essential part of the American sense of self and is never ever going away, even if its most ridiculous and extreme forms - such as the idea that history had come to an end - are now smothered in an embarrassed silence. It is at the very least an additional complication to the already complex adjustments that are under way in US-China relations.
Nor are all interventions military, and East Asia, Singapore included, has experienced more than its fair share of various Western attempts to influence the domestic politics of states. In any case, the words of a great power echo far more loudly than may be intended and not every Western leader sufficiently understands that words spoken for domestic reasons or to preserve amour propre can have strategic consequences.
This is particularly so because this is perhaps a more than usually delicate phase of China's development. Never before has so far-reaching an economic and social transformation affecting so many people been experienced in such a relatively short time.
But rapid change is inevitably internally destabilising and China's history has taught China's leaders to fear most those historical moments where external uncertainty coincides with internal unrest. This is such a period. Beijing is now embarking on a second and more difficult stage of reforms that must loosen the centre's grip on the economy in significant ways, while preserving the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Can it be done? One should hope so because the alternatives are all probably worse, but no one really knows, least of all China's leaders, although their determination should not be under-estimated.
So under these circumstances, incautious rhetoric about Hong Kong or Xinjiang or expressions of support for the Dalai Lama, among other things, may resonate in Beijing in ways unintended by Washington.
The Chinese too do not always understand that the words of a great power can have unintended consequences.
The CPC now relies upon nationalism to legitimise its rule, for the simple reason that nobody believes in communism as an ideology. Contemporary Chinese nationalism is a complex phenomenon made up of several strands, among them pride in China's achievements and a sense of destiny in reclaiming China's historical place in East Asia. More than other kinds of nationalism, contemporary Chinese nationalism is outwardly directed. This must be so because the CPC's attitude towards China's imperial past and even its own revolutionary history and such episodes as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and even towards Mao himself is ambivalent. The CPC's version of Chinese nationalism must primarily be directed outwards lest awkward questions be asked internally about the CPC itself.
There is no doubt that many injustices were done to China during the period that every Chinese schoolchild knows as "a hundred years of humiliation". Does China mean to rectify all of them? By what means? If not, how will it choose between multiple "injustices"? China is increasingly citing history rather than international law to justify its sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas. This causes great anxiety across the region. China has such a long history that it can be used to justify almost anything. Big countries are always going to arouse a degree of anxiety in small countries around its periphery. This is true of all big countries everywhere throughout history. Big countries have a duty to reassure that China has only partially fulfilled. And the anxieties that China has aroused complicate the adjustments between the US and China that are under way.
Several Asean countries are moving closer to the US; Japan is reinterpreting its Constitution to allow it to conduct more robust military activities. No country ever gives up sovereignty claims willingly. It is inevitable that both the Japanese and the Chinese are not going to stop air and sea patrols in disputed areas in the East China Sea. The US and China are not going to stop patrolling and surveillance activities in the South China Sea. Nor will those Asean countries that have claims in the South China Sea stop doing what they must to protect their claims. Japan is a US ally, indeed its principal ally in East Asia. No one is looking for trouble, but the risk is of conflict by accident, not war by design. Yet the highly nationalistic public opinion that the CPC both uses and fears is a political reality that the CPC cannot ignore and may lead it in directions it does not intend. There is a danger that if an accident occurs, the CPC may become trapped by its own historical narratives.
Let me conclude with one final point. I am not a great believer in the idea of a clash of civilisations. Nor do I believe that the adjustments that are under way in East Asia can be understood by simplistic slogans like "Asia rising, the West declining". The patterns of trade, finance and investments and the production chains that have developed as a result of Asian growth are too complex to be defined by geographical dichotomies. For the last 200 years, the key issue faced by the non-Western world is how to adapt to a Western-defined modernity. The most successful examples of adaptation are East Asian. Since the 1911 overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, China has undergone a series of Westernising political experiments of which the current blend of communism with the market economy is the most recent and the most successful. Communism too is a Western ideology, and we should not lose sight of the fact that both liberal democracy as practised in the West and CPC rule formally conceptualised as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" have the same intellectual roots and are both legitimate heirs to the 18th-century political philosophy that locates sovereignty in the notion of "the people" rather than in Divine Right, bloodline or some other principle. Indeed, except for a handful of countries mainly in the Middle East, almost all political systems today validate themselves by some variant of that 18th-century political philosophy. We may have preferences for one variant or another, but it is difficult to say in abstract that one is more legitimate than another. In the realm of practical statecraft, success is the ultimate virtue; and success in statecraft must first of all rest on economic success.
The writer is Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was permanent secretary.
This is extracted from a speech at the Singapore Writers' Festival.