Kor Kian Beng, China Bureau Chief In Beijing

Don't bet on China's 'Asia for Asians only' vision yet

Chinese President Xi Jinping, flanked by Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, unveiled a new "Asian security concept" in Shanghai last week.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, flanked by Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, unveiled a new "Asian security concept" in Shanghai last week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China may not admit so, but President Xi Jinping's call at a little-known regional security forum for Asian states to take charge of Asian security is clearly aimed at eroding the United States' influence in the region.

However, Beijing's success at achieving an Asia-for-Asians-only security landscape appears to be a long shot. Rising fears over China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes and regional matters may actually drive some of its neighbours to seek a greater US presence, if not US protection.

In his speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (Cica) summit in Shanghai last week, the Chinese leader unveiled a new "Asian security concept", a message that can be boiled down to: Asian security should be left to Asians, not outsiders like the US.

Mr Xi, flanked by leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, took an indirect swipe at the security pacts the US has with Japan and the Philippines, describing them as harmful to regional peace as these ensure only "security for one or a few countries while leaving the rest insecure".

Mr Xi also pledged to build Cica - essentially a talk shop - up into a regional security structure with defence consultations and other exchanges among members. Such a body certainly favours China since the US is not a member of the forum, which has 26 members and 13 observers.

To observers, China used the Cica summit attended by leaders from 47 foreign countries and international organisations as a springboard to play a bigger security role in the region, pushing the US aside.

"The implication is that external powers, especially the US, should be excluded, which would elevate the position of China," Massachusetts Institute of Technology regional security analyst Taylor Fravel told The Straits Times.

Chinese foreign policy expert Yun Sun said while Mr Xi did not mention the US in his speech, "it is well-known that the US was certainly a main factor behind China's calculation".

"If Cica could become the desired regional security architecture, the US will be excluded," added the analyst from the Stimson Centre, noting China's spiel that "Asia is Asians' Asia, not Americans' Asia".

"China will have a dedicated forum to coordinate security cooperation on issues such as anti-terrorism. China will have an additional forum to play its leadership role."

Cica is yet another attempt by China to find alternative power structures to existing Western or US-led international organisations whose "unfair" rules have rankled it.

Currently, there is the Brics grouping, comprising the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Nearer home is the six-member Central Asian grouping led by China and Russia.

It is not difficult to see why China finds Cica a suitable vehicle to advance its own strategic goals. Set up in 1992 by Kazakhstan to promote peace and dialogue in Asia, the forum has many key members, such as Iran and Russia, which are not friends of the US. It helps too that Japan and the Philippines, China's two fiercest rivals to its territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea respectively, are only observers.

Given China's heft compared to that of other Cica members, it is likely that the world's second- largest economy would play a leading role in the forum should it evolve into a regional security structure.

To be fair, one should welcome China's stronger interest in security matters like a responsible superpower should have, and because many transborder problems need China's involvement. For decades, China has focused on economic matters and shied away from security issues, fearing that it would be asked to take on unnecessary international responsibilities. China also has a genuine need to use Cica to boost cross-border cooperation to fight an escalating terrorism scourge in the far-western Xinjiang region.

It is hard, too, to fault Mr Xi's vision of an "Asia in charge of Asian security issues".

Chinese media and analysts have taken pains to explain that China's seriousness in hosting the summit and playing its role as Cica chairman until at least 2016 is not targeted at the US.

Reasons cited include the need to live up to the trust placed in it by Kazakhstan, whose President Nursultan Nazarbayev founded Cica to allay post-Cold War fears after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But such rhetoric more likely reflects China's awareness that an overt anti-US stance could whittle support from Cica members such as Vietnam that have growing ties with America.

Already, difficulties abound for China in its ambitions for Cica and in its President's vision of an Asian security paradigm.

First, Asia is simply too diverse for one singular organisation to be able to resolve long-running, complex security problems. Cica members come from various regions of the Asian continent. It is unimaginable, for instance, to expect Vietnam to be able to understand or contribute solutions to security issues faced by, say, Iraq.

Also, Cica looks set to be driven by a China-Russia axis. But while their ties are good, there still exists a substantial level of mutual suspicion between the two former Communist allies.

Besides, many may not see the call for Asians to be in sole charge of security in their own region as being rational, given how interconnected today's world is.

A case can be made for a US role because the US also has interests in the region, such as ensuring freedom of navigation and the safety of its citizens living in Asian states. Similarly, a case of double standards can be made against China, which is trying to have a say in regions that it is not part of, like the Arctic.

So while it is only right that Asian countries should have a bigger role in regional security, Mr Xi should be aware that his vision may just be too ambitious, especially when some Asian countries do not yet trust Beijing over its recent actions in the South China Sea disputes.

So will Mr Xi's grand vision of an "Asia for Asians only" succeed? Don't bet on it yet.