Asia witnessed two major summits this week – between Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Moon Jae-in of South Korea in Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone between the two countries, and between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan.
Arguably, it was the meeting between the leaders of the two smaller countries that carried the greatest immediate significance, if nothing else because they sought a formal end to a state of war that has existed since 1950 and “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, while the India-China summit promised not even a joint statement of what was on the agenda between their two leaders. And yet, as many have argued for decades, there is no “Asian Century” without India and China working together and living in peace.
Therefore, if the Modi-Xi “informal summit” truly paves the way for greater understanding and trust between the political and security establishments of the two countries, it is this summit that will have the greater longer-term significance for Asia and the world.
The two summits and the positive vibes they bring, or seek to promote, also bring attention back to questions that have engaged sections of the intellectual and political elites in the region for well over a century: what of “Asian unity” or of an “Asian federation” and why have these remained so difficult to attain when there exist the Mercusor, Nafta, EU and the African Union?
Asians, despite a strong intellectual tradition represented by Rabindranath Tagore of India or Okakura Tenshin of Japan, and Asia-minded political leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia or General Aung San of Burma, have tended towards nationalism and communalism than pan-Asianism.
Indeed, for the Chinese today, Asian unity is a functional concept represented in improved physical connectivity through its Belt and Road Initiative. At the ideational level, however, what is Asian is a rather more parochial construct – a new form of tianxia, a traditional Chinese concept of the world order with itself at the top. This is promoted more subtly through concepts such as “Asia for Asians” and “Asian values” and through the instrument of the BRI, even though these phrases and ideas might not have originated from China.
The immediate practical consequence of these actions and concepts is a Chinese Monroe Doctrine – evident in the South China Sea, too – where Beijing will brook no interference from outside powers and wishes to be seen as No. 1 in the continent. That China should have taken this path should be no surprise, given that as early as Tagore’s first visit to China, he was poorly received by members of the newly formed Communist Party of China. In fact, Tagore, while opposed to British colonialism in India, had also begun to outgrow what to him were the narrow confines of nationalism, something forgotten even in India these days.
It is ironic that the central themes of both summits have much to do with the lasting effects of a Western heritage held more strongly by Asians today than Westerners themselves in many instances. In the case of India and China for example, their boundary dispute is a central security concern and is the result of an adherence to a Westphalian concept of borders and sovereignty adopted seriously by either nation only within the last 100 years. Millennia prior, the free movement of people and ideas between the two civilisations was the norm.
The Marxist-Leninist state with Stalinist practices adopted by China and North Korea and the liberal, democratic republics in India and South Korea today are both borrowed from the West even if they have particular national characteristics that each state has imparted in practice. And yet, the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-Western rhetoric makes it seem like there was nothing that the West had to contribute either to the party or to China’s success and rise today.
In India, meanwhile, the assault on liberal values and secularism – seen as Western imports – and such incredible claims as recently made by the head of a provincial government that the internet existed during the time of the Mahabharata, betray a continuing sense of insecurity about the strengths of India’s own past and achievements when measured against those of the West.
If China or India think their qualification for assuming the mantle of Asian leadership must take the path of marking themselves as different from the West as possible, then they are falling into a rabbit hole. It does nothing to help along national unity in either India or China or reunification in the Korean peninsula – let alone Asian unity – if, as in North Korea, China and India, political leaders and parties unabashedly project almost a divine right to rule, if minorities are insecure, and dissent frowned upon or suppressed at home, and there is scant patience for smaller neighbours abroad.
Indeed, for India and South Korea, there is the question of the lack of alignment of their political systems and values with those of their summit partners that will affect the course of the future. Professions of comradeship and of the “Asian century”, that are routine at India-China summits, ring hollow. India and China can talk about batting for Asia and oppose aspects of the international order laid down by the West, but they have benefited from and are dependent on the structures created by that order to sustain their rise.
While Xi decks himself out as the new champion of globalisation, China’s self-interest is not lost on observers, least of all India, whose pharmaceutical products and IT services are locked out of China because of protectionism. Moon, meanwhile, will have to contend with more than 70 per cent of South Koreans in their 20s who are opposed to reunification, largely due to economic concerns.
The “Asian Century”, it would appear, is still some distance away. ■
Jabin T. Jacob is a senior China analyst based in New Delhi