William Choong

Regionalism with Chinese Characteristics

In recent months, China has been lining up its own franchise of multilateral organisations in Asia.

Speaking in May, President Xi Jinping told delegates at a security summit in Shanghai that Asia's problems should be solved by Asians. The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA) is a group of more than 20 mostly Asian countries. Japan and the U.S. were observers but not full participants at CICA.

In September, China invited the defence ministers of South Korea, North Korea and Japan to attend the Xiangshan Forum (XF) in November.

When the XF last held its meeting in November 2012, it mostly involved defence scholars. Chinese defence officials plan to transform the event into a high-end security and defence forum. In essence, this would present the XF as the Chinese analogue to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of defence ministers held in Singapore.

China is working hard not only in the security sphere. China is leading discussions among more than a dozen Asian countries to create a US$50 billion Asian infrastructure development bank. To be mostly funded by China, the new body is seen to be a challenge to the role of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is dominated by the United States and Japan.

All such efforts underpin China's so-called "Asian security concept" - or what I would term regionalism with Chinese characteristics. The Chinese strategy is not to usurp the role of established multilateral bodies such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the East Asia Summit or the ADB, but to create new bodies or refashion existing ones so that China has a dominant role in them.

Regionalism with Chinese characteristics involves the doing away with what China deems to be the region's "Cold War mentality" - a mindset that it argues has led to America's "exclusive" network of military alliances surrounding continental China.

China's complaints about "exclusive" arrangements sound pretty rich.

CICA and the XF lack the inclusive character of the East Asia Summit and the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus - organisations which comprise Asean, Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and South Korea.

Seen from Chinese eyes, however, the new thrust is totally logical. It is an open secret that China is not entirely enthused by the Shangri-La Dialogue, which it sees to be a forum for delegates to fire provocative questions at its officials. Speaking at the Dialogue in June, Lt-Gen Wang Guanzhong, a top Chinese military officer, railed against the U.S. and Japan for teaming up against Beijing.

China's attempt at carving up geopolitical space is also getting more sophisticated. In the past, Chinese officials were seen to be less articulate than their Western counterparts in international fora. Now, many of them have been trained in the West, speak impeccable English and can hold their own in the thrust and parry of debate.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Major-General Yao Yunzhu was feted in the media for standing up to U.S. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel for his criticism of China's establishment of an Air Defence Identification Zone in November 2013.

At the Global Strategic Review, an Oslo conference organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies last month, Eric Li, a venture capitalist and political scientist, gave a tour d'horizon of China's strategy.

China, he stressed, wants to reclaim a pre-eminent position in Asia.

"In my 25 years as a capitalist, I have never walked into a boardroom and said 'I think I deserve a higher percentage share in this company,' and everyone claps and say 'wonderful, take some more'. It doesn't happen. Tension is natural," he argued.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, Beijing's assertiveness has not hurt its position, Mr Li said. Rather, if the essence of strategy is balancing upsides and downsides as well as the optimisation of interests, China has "performed brilliantly," given that it has managed to realise adjustments to its status without leading to war.

Whether Chinese strategy would work going forward, however, is not assured.

While China's assertiveness has not led to war, it has not led to peace breaking out all over, either. Indeed, China's assertiveness in the East China and South China Seas is precisely the reason why Asia's "Cold War mentality" (read: US-led alliances) will endure, and even be strengthened. One senior Asian diplomat has even suggested to me that the U.S. should lead a countervailing coalition of the willing to block Chinese assertiveness in the two seas.

Faced with China's assertiveness, smaller Asian countries are resorting to self-help behaviour. Vietnam, for example, is acquiring Kilo-class submarines from Russia and is reported to be interested in buying older P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft from the United States.

Mr Bilahari Kausikan, formerly the permanent secretary at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently that the maritime disputes in Asia are merely the symptoms of a more fundamental problem - the sheer disparity of size between Asean and China. Big countries, he wrote in The American Interest, would always provoke a "degree of anxiety" among smaller countries in their periphery.

"Unless we address the core issue of asymmetry squarely and sensitively, I fear they may well have unintended consequences," he added.

This dynamic does not only apply to China and Asean; it also applies to all of China's relations with other Asia-Pacific countries outside Asean. At this rate, regionalism with Chinese characteristics might soon lead to a region with contested characteristics.

The writer is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.