Why China should drop its slogan of 'Asia for Asians'

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Most countries in the region fear an unconstrained Chinese hegemon

Distinguishing diplomatic rhetoric from official policy is never easy. But it is especially difficult in China, where the government's actions so often fail to match its statements. Given this, it is worth asking whether the latest slogan adopted by Chinese officials - "Asia for Asians" - is merely nationalist posturing for domestic consumption or a signal of a genuine policy shift.

The most authoritative reference to an "Asia for Asians" occurred in May, during Chinese President Xi Jinping's keynote speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. In a carefully crafted statement, Mr Xi laid out China's vision for a new regional security order - one in which Asians are in charge.

According to Mr Xi, at the fundamental level, "it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia". Fortunately, he declared, they have the "capability and wisdom" to build peace and security in the region through cooperation.

This vision, of course, entails an overhaul of the Asian security structure, with a drastically reduced role for the United States. Indeed, Mr Xi implicitly criticised the existing US-dominated security architecture in Asia as stuck in the Cold War, and characterised "military alliance targeted at a third party" as "not conducive to maintaining common security".

Since the speech, lower-level officials and the Chinese media have reiterated similar lines.

At first glance, this vision seems entirely reasonable; after all, most countries prefer to manage domestic and regional affairs without the meddling of outside powers.

But Mr Xi's statement marked a significant departure from China's longstanding position on America's presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Since the US-China rapprochement four decades ago, Beijing has maintained a studied ambiguity regarding Washington's role as the guarantor of Asia's security. China's pragmatic leaders knew the US presence helped to contain the Soviet Union (and subsequently Russia), prevented Japan from re-arming, and kept sea lanes open. They also recognised that they lacked the power to challenge the US-led security order or offer a feasible alternative.

This may be changing. Though some analysts remain convinced that Mr Xi's "Asia for Asians" line is an empty attempt to bolster his nationalist credentials, an equally strong case can be made that it signifies a genuine policy shift. While the argument is not overwhelming, it should not be dismissed out of hand.

The most conclusive evidence of Mr Xi's readiness to challenge the established order lies in the economic sphere.

Most notably, China has set up institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund to which it will channel tens of billions of dollars - clear challenges to the established Western-dominated multilateral institutions.

But on the security front, it has made less headway in turning its "Asia for Asians" vision into reality. It has acquired some military capabilities to deter the US from intervening in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, and improved its security ties with Russia and Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. But such modest gains are more than offset by the security setbacks that China has suffered as a result of its assertiveness in regional territorial disputes.

Indeed, after months of increasingly forceful military moves - most notably, the unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone covering a large swathe of the East China Sea, including disputed territories - China's ties with Japan reached an all-time low. And concerned South-east Asian countries have been entreating the US to remain in the region as a counterweight to China.

Underlying the "Asia for Asians" trope may be China's belief that it is the US, not its own behaviour, that is to blame for its neighbours' defiance.

Some Chinese strategists believe the US is using Asian states, particularly Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, as pawns to contain China. If this perspective has prevailed at home, Chinese leaders, including Mr Xi, could have reached the fateful conclusion that, on balance, America's security presence in Asia directly threatens Chinese interests and must be eliminated.

That would be a grave strategic error, based on a fundamental misreading of Asian security dynamics. Most of China's neighbours, even North Korea, fear an unconstrained Chinese hegemon - and, if the US security presence were eliminated, that is precisely what they would face. "Asia for Asians" would be "Asia for the Chinese".

It is difficult to imagine that Chinese policymakers, known for their sophistication and realism, could be pursuing a strategy that is not only unlikely to gain support from fellow Asians, but also guaranteed to spark conflict with the US. Given this, it is likely - indeed, desirable - that "Asia for Asians" will remain a mere slogan.

In fact, Mr Xi has toned down his description of China's aims, recently telling Communist Party leaders: "We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China's message to the world."

But, even as rhetoric, the phrase "Asia for Asians" is problematic for historical reasons. In the 1930s, Japanese militarists used the idea of an "East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" as a cover for their imperial ambitions and conquests.

The slogan was widely ridiculed, particularly in China, for its transparent absurdity.

This may help to explain the lukewarm reception that the "Asia for Asians" concept has received this time. The smartest thing for Chinese leaders to do would be to drop it, once and for all.

PROJECT SYNDICATE

The writer is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.