Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The birth of a multipolar Asia?

Xi Jinping’s 'Asia for Asians' slogan may ultimately come to fruition.

Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery
Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery
Published 22 May 2017   Follow @Chietigj

In 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping called for an ‘Asia for Asians’ as part of a proposed ‘Asian Security Concept’. This remark seemed provocative at the time but today it increasingly reflects an emerging reality: that Asian powers are having to step up and assume the reins of leadership in enforcing the regional order.

Three factors have contributed to this state of affairs: the rise of Trump and a broader shift towards greater burden-sharing in US alliance relationships in Asia; questions over the sustainability of the traditional ASEAN-led regional architecture; and the rise of China as an increasingly assertive and confident power.

Trump’s Asian agenda

First, significant uncertainty and disruption has been inflicted on the regional order from the Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ agenda, exacerbated by President Trump’s proclivity to question basic principles of the US presence in Asia.

Some of the statements made by Trump on the campaign trail – such as questioning the US alliance commitments in Asia – have been toned down since he assumed office. But the very act of flip-flopping on these fundamental issues has fuelled uneasiness in Asian capitals over the credibility of the US commitment to Asia. Moreover, the flip-flopping has continued in the first 100 days of the Administration: Trump hinting at revisiting the ‘One China’ principle following his phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December and then reaffirming the principle during his conversation with Xi Jinping in February; threatening to label China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on Chinese exports and then shelving this in exchange for Chinese cooperation in addressing the North Korea issue; calling on South Korea to pay for the new THAAD anti-ballistic missile system and then reaffirming the agreed terms to cover the cost; statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing in January of a more confrontational approach towards China in its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea and then pledging to develop a relationship with China on the principles of 'non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation' during his visit to Beijing in March.

Exacerbating these missteps is the broader trajectory of US-Asia relations, which pre-dates Trump. Call for 'burden sharing' in US alliance commitments can be traced as far back as the Clinton Administration while gaining momentum under Obama’s pivot/rebalance towards Asia.

Whither ASEAN-centrality?

Exacerbating this trend in US policy is concern over the sustainability of the ASEAN-led regional architecture, which gained momentum in 2012 when ASEAN was unable to issue a joint communiqué following its leaders’ meeting and again in 2016 when a draft statement was reportedly retracted over the apparent lack of solidarity on maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This exposed fissures between the continental and maritime members of ASEAN, with the former generally being non-claimant states to the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea that also tend to be more economically dependent on China (notably Cambodia and Laos), and thus prone to adopting a more conciliatory view of China. These disagreements have again been highlighted as the recently concluded 20th ASEAN Summit hosted by the Philippines failed to make any mention of Chinese reclamation and military activities in the South China Sea.

These developments arise as ASEAN marks its 50th anniversary. ASEAN’s ambition to move beyond its initial mandate of confidence-building towards preventative diplomacy and eventually conflict resolution has failed to gain momentum. This comes amid disagreements among its member-states, while ASEAN’s norms of consensus and non-intervention relegate it to irrelevance in times of crisis. As a result, the principle of ‘ASEAN centrality’ as a core feature of the Asian regional architecture has been eroded.

Further fuelling pressure on ASEAN is neglect by the region’s major powers. Indonesia under Jokowi appears to have developed an aversion to multilateralism that has prompted a loss of interest in ASEAN. Meanwhile, India’s ‘Act East’ policy embraces an increasingly expansive strategic geography referred to as the ‘Indo-Pacific’, which includes countries from Bangladesh to the Pacific Island economies as well as the US, further sidelining ASEAN.

China rising

Amid these developments the rise of China is the most significant structural shift undergirding the emergence of a new regional order. The era of China 'biding time' and maintaining a low profile has been replaced by a more visible role on the world stage, as evidenced by recent statements from Chinese leaders about ‘guiding globalisation’ and promoting a ‘China solution’ to global issues.

This rhetoric has been supported by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, marked in mid-May by the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, attended by leaders from 29 countries. Beijing has provided more than $50 billion in financing for Belt and Road since its inception in 2013.

While these initiatives may have been launched for largely economic reasons – namely to export China’s industrial overcapacity and facilitate the economy’s shift to consumption-led growth – there are also underlying strategic dimensions. Notably, the deployment in April 2017 of a flotilla of PLA Navy vessels to 20 countries that are part of China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ demonstrates the PLA Navy’s newfound raison d'être in protecting the country’s growing overseas interests. This has been further evidenced by the implementation of a comprehensive counter-terrorism law in December 2015; the establishment of the country’s first overseas base in Djibouti in 2016; and the launch of the country’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier this year.

Clearly, China’s naval ambitions have moved beyond the realm of so-called 'near-coast defense' – aimed at deterring US intervention in the Taiwan Strait – and increasingly into the realm of 'far-sea operations'. This increasingly expansive view of China’s maritime interests not only includes power projection into the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans but also more assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas, where China maintains contested territorial claims.

Towards a new regional order

Where do these three developments leave Asia?

Traditionally, the regional architecture in Asia has been dominated by the 'hub and spoke' US-led bilateral alliance system (most notably with Japan, South Korea and Australia, but also the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) and ASEAN-led multilateral institutions. However, with regional powers having to step up and assume the reins of leadership in enforcing the regional order, a new component may be emerging.

Notably, the proliferation of mini-lateral or trilateral initiatives in recent years is evidence of an attempt by regional powers to develop a regional order minus the US, China or ASEAN.

While early mini-lateral initiatives were US-led – most notably with the Australia and Japan; South Korea and Japan, and India and Japan – recent initiatives have excluded the US. These include an inaugural foreign secretary-level trilateral dialogue between Australia, India and Japan in June 2015; a India-Australia-Indonesia Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean; a track II-level dialogue between India, Japan and South Korea; track 1.5-level dialogue between India, Japan and South Korea and the conclusion of a trilateral cooperation agreement between India, Japan and Vietnam in December 2014.

Yet despite the erosion of Washington’s role, there is little indication of regional powers kow-towing to China. Most regional powers have maintained a policy of strategic hedging vis-à-vis Beijing, with the notable exception being the Philippines under President Duterte, who recently welcomed the first PLA Navy port call to the Philippines since 2010 and chose to ignore last year’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that challenged the validity of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ claim in the South China Sea.

Otherwise, recent developments provide little indication that China is getting its way in the region. India permitting the visit by the Dalai Lama to Tawang in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by China as ‘South Tibet’; South Korea permitting the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system despite protests from Beijing; Japan’s deployment of its largest vessel, the helicopter destroyer Izumo, to the South China Sea; Japan’s growing military cooperation with claimant states to the maritime territorial disputes with China; Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing wen’s rejection of the ‘1992 consensus’ as the basis for interaction with mainland China; Indonesia’s ‘maritime fulcrum’ concept pledging a more robust defence of its maritime resources and sovereignty, including the Natuna Islands, which are disputed with China; and Australia’s scrutiny of China’s acquisition of and investment in natural resources and infrastructure projects: all of these developments demonstrate that rather than band-wagoning with China, regional powers are more likely to balance it.

On the economic front, despite the US refusal to ratify the TPP, Japan and Australia have pushed for the remaining 11 participants to continue the initiative with the possible inclusion of other countries, such as China. Moreover, US withdrawal from the TPP may create impetus to reinvigorate the other major multilateral free trade initiative, the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

In the context of these developments, Japan is emerging as a major regional power. Tokyo has circumvented its pacifist constitution to develop a more muscular foreign policy facilitated by the establishment of a National Security Council, a reinterpretation of its constitution to permit collective self-defence, and a pledge to revise, by 2020, Article 9 of the constitution which renounces the threat or use of force. These initiatives have translated into renewed efforts by Japan to engage with the region through, for instance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ concept and ‘China Plus One’ strategy of diversifying foreign investment (most notably in Southeast Asia).

India too has pledged a more proactive approach towards the region. While not as mature as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India has also promoted its own conceptions of regional order through initiatives such as ‘Project Mausam’ and the cotton and spice routes.

So, rather than a Washington-Beijing ‘G2’ arrangement, a more complex regional order is emerging. Xi Jinping’s 'Asia for Asians' slogan may ultimately come to fruition, but rather than a rallying call for replacing the US-led regional order with the Chinese-led one, it may instead facilitate the emergence of truly multipolar Asia.

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