Xi Jinping's 'Asia for Asians' mantra evokes imperial Japan

Curtis Chin is wary of China's challenge to the region's security status quo

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:24am

A small but powerful exhibition on Manhattan's Upper East Side is helping to mark the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war - at least from a US perspective. But, like the best exhibits, the presentation of past events takes on new meaning in the context of an evolving world, and in this case, the growing economic and military assertiveness of China.

In touring the exhibition of old words and images, a very modern, troubling question comes to mind: Does "New China" equal "Old Japan"? Or, more pointedly, does China risk becoming the Japan of some seven decades past, namely a rising nation that sparks conflict and then war under the guise of "Asia for Asians"?

This comes to mind particularly when viewing an old Japanese wartime propaganda poster from the Philippines. The small poster shows parts of East and Southeast Asia, and reads in English: "December 8th. The third anniversary of Greater East Asia War to defend Asia for and by the Asiatics. Japan's victory is the Philippines Triumph."

December 8 is, of course, the date from Asia's side of the dateline of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On display at the Grolier Club, the poster is part of an exhibition on the words and images of war.

In looking at the artefacts of past war, one cannot but help draw connections to conflicts today. Trouble is brewing in the East China and South China seas, where an increasingly assertive China is seen by many of its neighbours as a schoolyard bully, taking by force what it could not through diplomacy.

The stationing of a massive deep-water oil rig by China in waters also claimed by Vietnam has been the latest flashpoint and tensions continue to escalate. The past few weeks, let alone years, are no model for a way forward when it comes to dispute resolution.

Pointedly, at a recent Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, in Shanghai, President Xi Jinping unveiled a new "Asian security concept", which in essence called for Asian security to be left to Asians. China has indeed "stood up", and a century of "humiliation" at the hands of Western powers is long over, as China resumes its "rightful" place in the world order.

Flash back to the 1930s and 1940s as imperial Japan's propaganda machine exhorted Asians to control their own destinies and throw aside the yoke of Western colonial rule. "Asia for Asians" was the mantra. Better yet, Japan's leaders argued, come join Japan in a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", where all would benefit as Japan took its rightful leadership role. The result? Japan's vision of Asia for Asians led that nation and much of the Asia-Pacific region down a path to destruction.

From the ashes of the second world war, and the Korean and Vietnam wars, a new paradigm evolved, with the US helping to guarantee a Pacific peace that has allowed Asia to prosper and, ironically, China to rise. It is that defence status quo that's now being challenged by China.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue held recently in Singapore, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both raised China's ire with statements challenging its territorial moves.

Sadly, there is no respected third party to make clear that all sides need to let cooler heads prevail. China should pull back its oil rig. Southeast Asian nations must work together, and a clear code of conduct must be established in the South China Sea. Every nation should treat each other with respect.

It is time for all players to take a step back and commit to engagement, cooperation and a peaceful resolution to disputes. This will be essential if this century is to be one of shared peace and prosperity.

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Follow Curtis on Twitter at @CurtisSChin