CLAREMONT – Distinguishing diplomatic rhetoric from official policy is never easy. But 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 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.” Fortunately, he declared, they 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 United States. 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. But Xi’s statement marked a significant departure from China’s long-standing position on America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Since the US-China rapprochement four decades ago, China has maintained a studied ambiguity regarding America’s 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 re-arming, 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. Though 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 tens of billions of dollars – clear challenges to the established Western-dominated multilateral institutions.
On the security front, however, 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. But 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. And 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, America’s 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, even North Korea, 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 Communist Party leaders that, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.”
But, even as rhetoric, the phrase “Asia for Asians” is problematic for historical reasons. In the 1930s, Japanese militarists used the idea of an “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.