Last week was a heckuva week for China's rising power: tussling with Vietnam in the South China Sea (all about America, supposedly), signing a US$400 billion gas deal with Russia (all about America, too), and sparring with the US over cyber-espionage.
But less noticed was the curious forum Shanghai hosted last week: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, or CICA for short. CICA has two dozen member states and a dozen observers, and China will hold the chair for the next two years.
China will use this time to consolidate its leadership in Asia. While CICA has been a low-key talkshop until now, its elevation to prominence in the official Chinese media speaks to an important agenda. As with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Beijing wants to localise regional affairs. Its objective, stated or implied, is to reduce and remove American influence from the region. If the SCO and RCEP forums are commonly (if lazily) juxtaposed against NATO and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) respectively, CICA could become China's 'anti-pivot'.
Whereas the US policy of rebalancing is designed to involve itself more in the region, the language of rebuttal used by Chinese commentators is strident. Admittedly, some have hardline affiliations so we should discount the severity of their tone, but the message is clear enough.
Li Shaoxian from the prominent think tank known as CICIR said this security summit 'represents Asia's voice on major international and regional issues and enables Asian countries to keep Asian affairs in their own hands'. The respected scholar Shen Dingli at Fudan stated that 'certain non-Asian powers, though forming alliances and cliques with some Asian countries, have constantly interfered in the balance and cooperation ofAsia'. Xi Jinping himself pronounced at the CICA conference that 'no country should attempt to monopolize regional affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of other countries'. The concept of Asian-ness was most forthrightly expressed by Wu Zurong at the China Foundation for International Studies. He thought the summit should 'help the US avoid making disastrous blunders in its relations with Asia'. He questions:
...whether the vast majority of Asian countries welcome[s] the US military alliance strategy... it is high time that the US listen[s] to what Asian people say on those alliances... The US can no longer avoid the fact that most Asian countries don't like to see US establish its military bases or station its troops permanently in their countries.
Wu has a point.
If put to a vote, he's probably right that a plurality of Asian nations would prefer not to have American troops, sailors and airmen forever on their territory. That's an academic exercise, of course, because nations don't 'vote' collectively on such things; they each make individual interest-maximising choices about alliances and other vital concerns.
But let's also consider Wu's comments about a 'majority of Asians'. It does indeed seem unfair that, in the hypothetical election above, Brunei (say) gets the same vote as China. Yang Jiechi has reminded us that 'China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact'. Indeed. While they may each have one UN seat, for instance, who believes that the US and Trinidad are equally important? So given China's enormous population, and given that the CCP enjoys enviable approval ratings, especially in foreign affairs, Wu may well be right that the American presence in Asia is mainly unwelcome.
China, quite rationally, wants the US out of its backyard: why would it not?
That point may seem facile to some readers. It's certainly obvious to Philip Stephens at the FT who says that 'China's strategy is pretty clear — to push the US out of the western Pacific and claim tribute from its neighbours'. The NYT's Roger Cohen, reading John Mearsheimer, says 'we should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe doctrine, the 19th century keep-out-of-this-hemisphere message of the United States to Europe'. Australia's own John Lee, co-writing at the Hudson Institute, argues that 'Beijing's assertiveness is strident, yet controlled… [its] objectives in the region… have been apparent for several decades: As far as the CCP is concerned, these claims are part and parcel of a greater China concept'. Lee refers to William Callahan's 'Sino-speak', which 'presents an essentialized Chinese civilization that is culturally determined to rule Asia, if not the world'.
The most interesting aspect of China's project is the appeal to Asian self-destiny. This seems totally legitimate, but history cautions. Certainly, the Chinese are aware. Bloomberg worried last week that 'for all China's stern injunctions to Japan to remember wartime history, its bumbling aggression in Southeast Asia suggests it also could use a refresher course'. Japan in the early 20th century also sought to expel Western influence by creating a new 'Asian order' — but this was a subtle pretext for its own eventual subjugation of the region.