Sat, Dec 06, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Is ‘Asia for Asians’ just a slogan?

By Minxin Pei 斐敏欣

Distinguishing diplomatic rhetoric from official policy is never easy. However, 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 (習近平) keynote speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. In a carefully crafted statement, Xi laid out China’s vision for a new regional security order — one in which, as the slogan suggests, Asians are in charge.

According to 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.”

He said that fortunately, Asians 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 US. Indeed, Xi implicitly criticized the existing US-dominated security architecture in Asia as stuck in the Cold War, and characterized “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. However, Xi’s statement marked a significant departure from China’s long-standing position on the US’ presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

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

This may be changing.

Although some analysts remain convinced that 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 Xi’s readiness to challenge the established order lies in the economic sphere. Most notably, China has established new development institutions, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the new Silk Road Fund, to which it will channel billions of US dollars — clear challenges to the established Western-dominated multilateral institutions.

However, on the security front, China has made much less headway in turning its “Asia for Asians” vision into reality. To be sure, it has acquired some military capabilities to deter the US from intervening in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, and it has improved its security cooperation with Russia and Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, 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.

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