By Chandran Nair
What do you think would be the tenor of global debate if Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a tour of South America, were to give speeches at each stop about the threat posed to the region by the United States? While visiting Cuba, he would offer promises of “deepening our alliance.” And, at the trip’s end in Mexico, Xi would call that country “freedom’s frontier on this divided peninsula.”
Anything of the sort would be greeted by the universal outrage of global commentators — and likely by calls for sanctions on the part of leading U.S. politicians.
But switch China and America’s places — and this is almost exactly what happened when Barack Obama visited Asia in late April 2014. Those words above were Obama’s — but directed to the Philippines and South Korea (rather than Cuba and Mexico).
Indeed, few issues nowadays can avoid being drawn into the ideological sinkhole of Sino-U.S. competition. But the global nervousness goes further than that.
In a speech to students in Pennsylvania, President Obama recounted that “countries like Germany, China and India — they’re working every day to out-educate our kids so they can out-compete our businesses.” Even the Hollywood press has been abuzz about whether studios are now “kowtowing to China,” by editing their films in an attempt to enter the lucrative Chinese market.
Apart from creating an attitude of fear and mistrust amongst the next generation of Americans, this kind of narrative promotes a dangerous national solipsism.
A world where all other countries are either threats or allies and a world can be divided into either being “with us or against us,” is an increasingly dangerous place — whether those words are uttered by a sitting American president or others.
What may be intended as harmless, even cheerful motivation can be turned, almost accidentally, on its head — and become the spark for a generation’s worth of misunderstanding and mistrust. Hardly the goal of political leadership.
Asia’s political leaders have been little better. They are far from acting in any harmonious fashion, mired as they are in their own petty squabbles.
The new “game” in Asia reads like a football world cup schedule: Japan vs. Korea, Korea vs. China, China vs. Vietnam — and North Korea vs. everyone else.
Asian leaders should know better. Their populations need them to focus on equitable and sustainable growth. Instead, far too many politicians seem stuck in the past, brooding over wars that ended 70 years ago.
The cliché is that Asian nations have long histories and long memories, which gives them wisdom. But the opposite can just as easily be true. An obsession with a perverse interpretation of history prevents co-operation on the real challenges of the future.
Asia’s external glue
Small wonder then that many, both within and without Asia, have clung to the notion, eagerly seized upon by the United States, that America has to step in and “fix” the region. But this is a dangerous idea. One need only look at the Middle East to see to what kinds of disasters such thinking can cause.
Nor is the seemingly placid state of Europe today something that Asia should aspire to, and not just for the obvious reason that a huge amount of blood was spilt in the interim.
What many too often forget is that the reason why Europe is so seemingly peaceful is because Western European nations have essentially forfeited any notion of an independent foreign policy. In crisis after crisis, they have listened to the United States’ luring calls and become totally subservient to the U.S. Europe, as many Europeans tacitly recognize, has become a tool in the global exercise of American power.
One need only look at a map of American overseas bases to know who is really calling the shots globally.
The whole world needs to pivot
What is really needed is not just an American and a European pivot to Asia, but also a Russian pivot to Asia, an African pivot and — most of all — an Asian pivot to Asia.
Asia will undoubtedly become the world’s most important region. In the early stages of this century, it will have both the world’s largest economy, China, and its most populous nation, India.
The future of such a continent should not be determined by any one group, certainly not the American political class. They stand out because they are simultaneously the most ill informed about the region — and, curiously, the most prone to believing they alone have a right to shape its history.
Cooperation, rather than rivalry, on Asian politics will be in everyone’s best interests. Progress on that vital issue cannot — and should not — come from outside.
It is shortsighted of China’s neighbors to antagonize what will inevitably become the region’s most powerful political, economic and military force. But it is just as shortsighted of China to promote any vicious form of nationalism as a means to distract from domestic dissatisfaction or challenges.
China is here to stay. Constant obsessing about regional conflicts, by whichever “camp,” poses the very real danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But more than this, the real problems of the 21st century — those to do with scarce resources, climate change, rising populations and technology over-reach — will need to be solved with the help of the entire world, not by squabbling groups of short-term allies.
China, in its well-understood self-interest, should be at the center of these efforts — possibly even leading them. For this, it will need the consent and cooperation of its neighbors. The latter should not fall victim to the “Western” folly of treating it like a pariah, largely because it has a very different, but actually quite well-functioning political system.
The Chinese, in turn, need to step up to the plate and validate their claims of a “peaceful rise.” They must start to compromise. If they don’t do so, they risk living up to frequent accusations of bullying made against them.
In the end, only a series of mutually agreed upon regional rules can prevent a race to the bottom. To the victor the spoils? Anybody who seriously believes that notion even for a moment has no idea of the lasting damage that could be created in the struggle for control of a small group of uninhabited islands.