Bilahari Kausikan

The roots of strategic distrust: the US, China, Japan and Asean in East Asia

US President Barack Obama (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The US and China are groping towards a new equilibrium in their relationships with each other and with other countries in East Asia. This is the central strategic issue of our times.

The changes in the distribution of power that are occurring are relative not absolute. This is not to say that the US does not face serious challenges. But China too faces serious challenges. No country's trajectory is ever smooth.

America now clearly needs help to maintain the regional order. But the US does not yet know how much help it needs, has not yet decided on the areas to ask for help and is uncertain about what price to pay for help. China benefits from the current order but is driven by a sense of destiny to reclaim its historical role in the region, is neither willing nor able to take sole responsibility for maintaining order, is as yet unsure where to offer help and how much help to offer, and uncertain about what price to ask for its help. From these ambiguities stem the uncertainties, confusions and contradictions of our times. The 'new model of major power relations' that China has proposed, and which the US has sought to redefine but not rejected, at least implicitly acknowledges a legitimate American role in East Asia even if leaves the precise parameters of that role open. But China has also floated the idea of a new security concept based on the pernicious and impractical notion that Asian problems should be resolved only by Asians.

The adjustments between the US and China that will be necessary to reach a new architecture are manifold. I would like to focus on only one aspect which I believe is the root of strategic distrust. This is what may perhaps be termed the psychological factor.

The American Psyche

Recently State Counsellor Yang Jiechi visited Washington. I was told that the new model of major power relations was discussed. There was agreement that under this new model, the US and China should try to minimize their disagreements and foster habits of cooperation. But the Americans could not unambiguously endorse a third element that is perhaps the most important element for China: mutual respect for each other's core interests.

Why not agree to something so obvious? I think it is because the US knows that the preservation of communist party rule must be the most vital of Chinese core interests and is reluctant to endorse this explicitly. American leaders and officials often posture for domestic audiences, are often constrained by the attitudes of Congress, and there is often a large element of ritual in their evocations of democracy and human rights. But the idea of universality is so essential a part of the American psyche that I don't think that their words are always just posturing for domestic effect. More to the point I think Chinese leaders suspect that this is so too. In any case, the words - and the silences -- of a great power echo more loudly than may be intended. American politicians do not always sufficiently understand how their words may grate on foreign ears or can have strategic consequences. And Americans should not forget that domestic politics is not an American monopoly. The days when even the most powerful of Chinese leaders can entirely disregard their public opinion or insulate it from inconvenient foreign pronouncements are long gone.

This is a particularly delicate phase of China's development. Never before has a major country experienced so far reaching an economic and social transformation affecting so many people in such a short time. But rapid change is destabilizing and China's history has taught China's leaders to fear most those historical moments where external uncertainty coincides with internal restlessness. This is such a moment of history. Beijing is now embarking on a second and more difficult stage of reforms that must loosen the centre's grip on crucial sectors of the economy while preserving the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Can it be done? One should certainly hope so because all the realistic alternatives are worse. But no one really knows, I think least of all China's leaders, although their determination should not be underestimated.

Under these challenging circumstances, the Chinese leadership can be forgiven for regarding American attitudes towards universality and incautious words on Hong Kong or Tibet or Xinjiang or Taiwan with grave suspicion; as ultimately intended to destabilize China and delegitimize and undermine their rule. At the very least it is an additional complication to their already complex problems. But there seems to be great reluctance on the American side to confront this core issue. Perhaps they do not sufficiently understand that this is an existential issue for the Chinese leadership, against which all other issues are of secondary importance.

Triumphalist nationalism

Chinese leaders and officials too do not sufficiently understand that their own words and actions can evoke distrust. If a new equilibrium requires the US to acknowledge that different political systems can have their own legitimacy, it requires China to resist the temptations of triumphalist and xenophobic nationalism.

China can be rightly proud of its achievements. But Chinese leaders and officials may not understand how China's sense of destiny in reclaiming its historical place in East Asia can evoke anxiety in its neighbours and how one country's dream could be another's nightmare. The simple fact is that China is big and growing bigger and all the rest of us are small. Even the biggest of us is small as compared to China. In fact all of us combined will still be smaller than China. Big countries will always evoke a degree of anxiety in small countries on its periphery. This is true of all big countries in every region throughout history. It has absolutely nothing to do with the intentions of big countries. No matter how benign or bountiful the big country - and China has been very generous in the ASEAN region - some anxiety will linger. Anxiety is an existential fact arising from the disparity of size that exists irrespective of intentions. These anxieties can be assuaged but never entirely erased because the disparity of size is never going to change. Big countries have a duty to reassure that China has only partly fulfilled.

With communism discredited as an ideology, the CPC is increasingly relying on nationalism to legitimate its rule. There is nothing particularly unusual about this. But there are certain characteristics of contemporary Chinese nationalism that enhances the natural anxieties of small countries. Every country's nationalism has two basic sources. It can well up naturally from within the country's history, or it can be outwardly directed against some other country or people. Both elements are always present. But the balance between the two elements is crucial. More than other kinds of nationalism, Chinese nationalism is outwardly directed. As a party that still calls itself communist, the CPC cannot base its nationalism entirely on China's imperial past. If the past was so glorious why was there a need for a communist revolution? At the same time, the CPC's attitude towards its own revolutionary history and such episodes as the disastrous famine caused by the Great Leap Forward and the many lives lost or wrecked during the Cultural Revolution and indeed towards Mao Zedong himself, is ambivalent. Chinese nationalism must be outwardly directed lest awkward questions be asked internally about the CPC itself.

Chinese nationalism is today primarily focused on Japan.

There is no doubt that since the end of the Cold war Japanese politics has steadily moved rightwards and that Mr Abe's political stance on many, though certainly not all, aspects of Japan's wartime record reflects that shift. Mr Abe has not always been prudent in his choice of political allies. China has attempted to use history as a means of turning ASEAN countries and even the US against Japan. In particular, China has demonized Prime Minister Abe, accusing him of revising history. But this is unwise. It does not work and in fact is counter-productive.

The history that echoes with Chinese nationalism is not confined to the Second World War. In February this year President Xi Jinping met Lien Chan, the former Taiwanese Vice-President in China in what was described as the highest level meeting between the two sides since Mao Zedong met Chiang Kai-shek in 1945. In a speech that the People's Daily published on its front page under the title "The Chinese Dream to Fulfil the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People Together", President Xi cast the meeting in the historical context of how Taiwan had been occupied by foreign powers when the Chinese nation was weak. The speech was about Taiwan and reconciliation between the two sides is to be welcomed. But by casting reconciliation with Taiwan as an instance of the rectification of historical injustices inflicted upon a weak China it suggested and left open a number of questions. Many injustices were done to China during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Does a rising China intend to rectify all of them? If not, how will China choose? By what means does it intend to rectify historical injustices?

Sovereignty claims are always highly sensitive. China is increasingly defining its claims in the East and South China Seas in terms of its historical rights rather than international law. This causes great anxiety across the region, particularly in Southeast Asia. Japan's alliance with the US impels prudence and there has of late been a welcome easing of Sino-Japanese tensions which one can only hope will last. There is no such restraint in Southeast Asia where China has been inconsistent. China has settled its land boundary with Vietnam and the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin largely within established frameworks and equitably, even generously. China justified its deployment of HD-981 to disputed waters in the Paracels in accordance with international law and UNCLOS. Yet on other occasions, China has unilaterally asserted sovereignty. For example the areas covered by the recently created Sansha prefecture - Nansha (the Spratlys), Xisha (the Paracels) and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) -- are all disputed. China has also asserted domestic law over disputed waters through fishing regulations. Chinese officials have argued that since China's historical rights predate UNCLOS that regime cannot be the sole basis to determine sovereignty. This is disturbing because China has such a long history that it can be used to justify almost anything.

I know Chinese friends do not like the concept of 'balance' and regard it as a relic of the Cold War and directed against China. But this not how ASEAN understands the term. All ASEAN members want the best possible relationship with all major powers. No ASEAN member wants to have to choose between major powers. 'Balance' to ASEAN is an omnidirectional state of equilibrium. Balance in this sense is a crucial concept to small countries because it is only when there is balance that small countries can enjoy at least a degree of autonomy.

Let me conclude with a few words on ASEAN's role. American, Chinese and Japanese interests intersect in Southeast Asia. Whether we like it or not, ASEAN thus often finds itself at the centre of events. American, Chinese and Japanese friends are kind enough to call this 'ASEAN Centrality'. ASEAN is happy to believe you. But we have no illusions. We know we are as often the arena as we are actors. The major decisions are going to be made in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo and not in any ASEAN capital, or even in Canberra, New Delhi, Seoul or Moscow. Still ASEAN has been able to create some platforms that the US, China and Japan have found useful as supplementary means of ordering their relationships. But we can continue to play such a role only if ASEAN remains neutral and it is not in the interests of any of the major powers to make us choose one way or another.

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 a conference organised by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.