Leave Asia to Asians, says China

SEEKING to allay fears of China's growing assertiveness, President Xi Jinping has made clear his country's commitment to work for peaceful development and to usher in a "new phase" in Asia's security landscape.

Speaking to a gathering of leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai at a security forum here yesterday, Mr Xi outlined a new "Asian security concept" on how Asian states can play a bigger role to maintain regional peace.

In a nutshell, he said one country's security should not come at the expense of another's, and sustainable security has to be driven by holistic cooperation and joint development among Asian states.

"Asia's matters should be handled by Asians, Asia's problems should be resolved by Asians. Asia's security should be protected by Asians," he added. "Asians have the capability and wisdom to strengthen cooperation and realise Asian peace and stability."

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Observers believe Mr Xi's goal is for Asian countries, especially China, to be chiefly responsible for regional peace so as to relegate Western states, particularly the United States, to a reduced role.

This was evident in how he criticised other countries for setting up military alliances in Asia which he saw as detrimental to regional security, a veiled message meant for the US and its allies Japan and the Philippines.

"To beef up an entrenched or military alliance targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintaining common security," said Mr Xi, who also stressed that China would use "peaceful means" to resolve territorial disputes, as it has done with 12 out of its 14 neighbours.

Regional peace has been rocked as maritime spats between China and its neighbours flared up, the latest incident being in the South China Sea after Beijing moved an oil rig into waters also claimed by Hanoi, sparking fatal anti-China protests in Vietnam.

China's move is seen as a warning to the US and its allies after US President Barack Obama visited the region recently and pledged protection for Japan and the Philippines if they come under attack.

Observers say China, tired of US interference in territorial disputes, wants to deepen its involvement in regional security issues and dilute the US policeman role in the region.

Its tool of choice appears to be the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (Cica), a little-known Asian security forum founded by Kazakhstan in 1992 to promote dialogue and peace.

It now has 26 members - after approving applications from Qatar and Bangladesh - and 13 observers, including the US and Japan, and international organisations such as the United Nations.

China has put an unusually strong emphasis on this summit, Cica's fourth, where it assumed the chairmanship until 2016. Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, represented Singapore as China's guest.

As Cica host, China will seek to enhance the forum's influence by beefing up its secretariat and to establish a mechanism for defence consultations among member states, said Mr Xi.

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He also urged Asian countries to forge closer regional exchanges and cooperation in anti-terrorism, business, tourism, environmental protection, culture and people-to-people exchanges to tackle security challenges ranging from territorial disputes to non-traditional ones such as terrorism and cyber security.

Singapore-based international relations analyst Li Mingjiang said China's increased security interest is motivated by a growing desire to play a more active role in international affairs and to reshape the security structure and norms in the Asia-Pacific region.

"This is clearly a response to US efforts to consolidate its alliances and security partnerships in the region and growing security concerns in some regional countries towards China," Professor Li told The Straits Times.

Similarly, Mr Xi's call for Asian countries to tackle security challenges in the "Asian way" is targeted at weakening the United States' role in East Asian security arrangements, he added.

"By suggesting that regional security matters should be taken care of by Asian countries themselves, China is simply saying that Asian countries should reduce their security reliance on the US," said Prof Li, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.