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.
Indeed, after many months of increasingly forceful military moves — most notably, the unilateral declaration of an air-defense identification zone covering a large swath of the South China Sea, including disputed territories — China’s ties with Japan reached an all-time low. Concerned Southeast 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 the US, not its own behavior, is to blame for its neighbors’ defiance. Some Chinese strategists believe that the US is using Asian states, particularly Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, as pawns to contain China. If this perspective has prevailed in the internal policy debate, Chinese leaders, including Xi, could have reached the fateful conclusion that, on balance, the US’ 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 neighbors 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 is 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, Xi has lately toned down his description of China’s aims, recently telling Chinese Communist Party leaders: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world.”
However, even as rhetoric, the phrase “Asia for Asians” is problematic for historical reasons. In the 1930s, Japanese militarists used the idea of the “Greater 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 concept of “Asia for Asians” has received this time around. The smartest thing for Chinese leaders to do would be to drop it, once and for all.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
With its passing of Hong Kong’s new National Security Law, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to tighten its noose on Hong Kong. Gone is the broken 1997 promise that Hong Kong would have free, democratic elections by 2017. Gone also is any semblance that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plays the long game. All the CCP had to do was hold the fort until 2047, when the “one country, two systems” framework would end and Hong Kong would rejoin the “motherland.” It would be a “demonstration-free” event. Instead, with the seemingly benevolent velvet glove off, the CCP has revealed its true iron
At the end of last month, Paraguayan Ambassador to Taiwan Marcial Bobadilla Guillen told a group of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators that his president had decided to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, despite pressure from the Chinese government and local businesses who would like to see a switch to Beijing. This followed the Paraguayan Senate earlier this year voting against a proposal to establish ties with China in exchange for medical supplies. This constituted a double rebuke of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) diplomatic agenda in a six-month span from Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in South America. Last year, Tuvalu rejected an
US President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday last week announced it would impose sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a vast paramilitary organization that is directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has been linked to human rights violations against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The sanctions follow US travel bans against other Xinjiang officials and the passage of the US Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which authorizes targeted sanctions against mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials, in response to Beijing’s imposition of national security legislation on the territory. The sanctions against the corps would be implemented
US President Donald Trump on Thursday issued executive orders barring Americans from conducting business with WeChat owner Tencent Holdings and ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of popular video-sharing app TikTok. The orders are to take effect 45 days after they were signed, which is Sept. 20. The orders accuse WeChat of helping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) review and remove content that it considers to be politically sensitive, and of using fabricated news to benefit itself. The White House has accused TikTok of collecting users’ information, location data and browsing histories, which could be used by the Chinese government, and pose