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A new Asian security order?

Last week’s celebrations in Beijing, marking the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel proclamations, from Delhi’s perspective, might have looked like a ritual that had to be performed. For China, though, the occasion was about mobilising regional political support, including from India, for a new security framework that President Xi Jinping has been promoting with some vigour.

As it rises to become a great power, China is determined to reconstitute Asian geopolitics, which had been dominated by the United States since the end of the Second World War. Central to Xi’s argument is the proposition that the US security role in Asia is a manifestation of outmoded Cold War thinking. He is suggesting that American alliances must be replaced by a new regional security order.

Xi has affirmed that “in the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia. The people of Asia have the capability and wisdom to achieve peace and stability in the region through enhanced cooperation.” Heady stuff indeed. This kind of rhetoric has not been heard in Asia for decades.

The Panchsheel is at the very heart of Xi’s conception of a new security order for Asia. The five principles were outlined by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in separate joint statements with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Burma’s U Nu in 1954. These principles — respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence — were later expanded at the Afro–Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. The first summit of the non-aligned nations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1961 endorsed these principles.

Last week in Beijing, Xi argued that “it is no coincidence that the five principles of peaceful coexistence were born in Asia, because they embody the Asian tradition of loving peace.” Xi went on to add that, thanks to the contributions made by China, India, and Myanmar, “these principles are accepted in other parts of Asia and the world.” For some, Xi’s attempt to recalibrate Panchsheel for its contemporary foreign policy needs might seem empty rhetoric at worst or political romanticism at best. A more careful look, however, would suggest China is dead serious.

The idea of “Asia for Asians” is of old provenance and has a record of repeated failures. Way back in 1940, imperial Japan called for a “bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers.” If Tokyo’s call found some political resonance among those Asians yoked to the European empires, Japan’s own colonial ambitions exposed the limitations of the slogan “Asia for Asians.” In fact, nationalist China, British India, and the United States pooled their resources to defeat Japanese imperialism.

In the immediate post-war period, the idea of “Asia for Asians” gathered much momentum after Prime Minister Nehru convened the Asian Relations Conference in early 1947. Yet the impact of the Cold War and new nationalisms in Asia undermined the hopes for Asian unity. As it normalised relations with the US in the 1970s, Beijing toned down its campaign against the American military presence in Asia. It believed American alliances in Asia would counter Soviet hegemonism and prevent the revival of Japanese militarism.

China now appears confident that an America in decline has opened the door for the construction of a new security order in Asia. Xi’s vigorous pursuit of “Asia for Asians,” however, has run into some political resistance. China’s expanding military clout and its assertiveness in territorial disputes are driving some of its neighbours into a tighter embrace with the United States. Although Xi has repeatedly sought to give reassurance that China’s rise is peaceful and Beijing will never exercise hegemony, few Asians are willing to take it at face value.

In a controversial move this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to re-interpret Japan’s peace constitution. After being a passive partner in the military alliance with the United States all these decades, Tokyo is seeking a more active military role in shaping its security environment. Communist Vietnam, which fought a bitter war against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, has rapidly expanded its security cooperation with Washington. The Philippines, which threw American military forces out of the country in the early 1990s, is restoring the American presence and deepening defence ties with Japan.

If Beijing is trying to undermine American alliances in Asia, its neighbours are trying to strengthen them. How does India respond to this unfolding contestation in Asia? On the face of it, a non-aligned India should oppose all alliances and support collective security proposals seemingly in tune with Delhi’s “idealist” tradition. Yet, India’s foreign policy record speaks otherwise.

After its conflict with China in 1962, India turned first to the United States and then the Soviet Union to balance Beijing. Despite its embrace of Moscow, Delhi rejected the proposals for collective security that emanated from Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev (1969) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1986). Put simply, non-aligned India was not averse to playing balance of power politics when compelled by external circumstances.

As an increasingly powerful China seeks to reorder Asia, Delhi must firmly locate China’s Panchsheel campaign in a clinical assessment of Asia’s rapidly evolving geopolitics and its consequences for Indian security. China is doing what rising powers, including the United States, have done before — frame one’s national interests in universal terms, push other major powers out of one’s immediate vicinity, and replace the old regional order with a new one.

Beijing is undoubtedly following a well-trodden path in international politics. But Delhi appears a long way from developing an appropriate strategy to cope with Asia’s new power play.


This post was originally published at the Indian Express