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Weekly Column by Ravi Dutt Bajpai

Ravi Dutt Bajpai,  Weekly Column No. 1004/2014


Why only an economic Asian Pivot?

Asia-Pacific has become the beehive of global diplomacy as several of the major world leaders have assembled to participate in a series of international summits. The major international meetings include Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Burma, and finally the G-20 Summit in Australia. The cluster of these high-level meetings promise to deliver a number of major global initiatives that may go a long way in tackling the contemporary challenges. While the global implications of these prominently Asian flavored international summits cannot be emphasized enough, the diplomatic hyperactivity also demonstrates the enormity of challenges in managing the Asia-Pacific regional power dynamics. Asian states have followed a pattern of deeper economic and trade cooperation among them while outsourcing the meaningful security and strategic cooperation to Unites States. The importance attached to US President’s participation in theses regional forums underlines the primacy attached to US by the regional states in sustaining the regional power equilibrium. The preeminence accorded to US makes the formation of an ‘Asian Pivot’ or power equilibrium controlled and sustained by the regional Asian states, an increasingly arduous task. Nonetheless, there are enough indications to suggest that an alternative to US centric Asian order under the banner of ‘Asia for Asians’ is being promoted by China. However, there are some genuine concerns that China is either chasing only a commercial or economic integration in a China centric Asian order or masquerading its strategic intentions as economic integration.

There is growing concern among American allies in the Asia-Pacific region that the United States may find it harder to pursue its ‘Asia Pivot’ with the necessary diplomatic and material resources in the face of China’s ever-increasing clout in the region. China’s grand vision of ‘Asia for Asians’ may be construed as a pathway to an ‘Asian pivot’, however, China’s ambition to take over the regional order may ultimately render this idea of ‘Asia for Asians’ untenable. During last week’s APEC summit, Chinese president Xi Jinping expounded his vision of “Asia-pacific Dream”, a regional framework exclusively for Asia-Pacific regional states.

This alternative Asian power dynamics proposed by Xi Jinping encourages Asian states to solve their problems by themselves rather than involve external powers; the Chinese president envisions an Asian order, which excludes the United States from its regional affairs. It appears that Xi Jinping has realized the Asian regional state’s distinction between the low and the high politics and how this distinction shapes the foreign policies of the Asian states. Asian states tend to prefer strong regional cooperation in economics relations (low politics) while simultaneously seeking security cooperation (high politics) from geographically distant yet globally dominant power, the United States. Therefore it is not surprising to see Chinese president Xi Jinping’s deliberate attempt to highlight greater economic cooperation in Asia-Pacific region in order to seek support for his “Asia-Pacific Dream”.

Xi Jinping’s address to APEC business leaders summit,underlines Chinese president’s insights into thestrategic behavior of the Asia-Pacific regional states. Instead of harping on material capabilities alone president Xi Jinping preferred to highlight the ethical dimensions of regional orderby claiming “we are duty-bound to create and fulfill an Asia-Pacific dream for our people.”United States and its allies are wary of China’s “Asia for Asian” rhetoric;therefore, the Chinese president has very prudently chosen to focus on economic issues alone. The continued economic growth has also enabled China to use its financial muscles to undertake regional commercial initiatives that will bring economic boom to the regional states. During his current visit to Asia-Pacific, the US President Barack Obama was supposed to promote his cross-continent free trade zone termed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trans-Pacific Partnership is eulogized for its large geographical spread from Chile to Japan, 800 million people and 40% of global economy butdespite all these statistical highlights this treaty does not include China. TTP negotiations seems to mimic the World Trade Organization’s technique of talking all the way to an absolute abyss, furthermore Obama’s diminishing control over US domestic politics will deny the TTP negotiations its much needed thrust. In the meantime during November 2014 APEC summit in China, Xi Jinping launched among several other key initiatives, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), a new economic alliance framework that will superimpose the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

 China has also announced two other prominent economic initiatives to broaden its economic alliances with other regional powers. China has decided to set up a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)with 21 other countries to fund massive infrastructure building projects in the region. China volunteered to pay half the bank’s start-up capital of $50 billion to promote regional connectivity and economic integration. China has been very enthusiastic to revive the ancient Silk Road and also maritime Silk Road. China has announced a $40 billion fund to develop infrastructure in different countries along both theroutes. Most of the Asian states are in urgent need for infrastructure development funds and technical assistance hence China’s economic assistance is quite welcome in these countries. In the same vein during the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Myanmar this week, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiangannounced a package of $20 billion as a financial assistance for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

 Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Asia-Pacific Dream’ clearly mentions its economic and commercial incentives for the regional powers but does not get into the thorny issues of territorial disputes in either South China Sea or East China Sea. Similarly Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s in his address to East Asia Summit (EAS) announced a generous financial assistance to ASEAN members but offeredanopaque idea of tackling territorial disputes. It is beyond doubt that the onus for building a collaborative ‘Asian pivot’ rests with China but China needs to pursue a comprehensive regional cooperation framework encompassing strategic, security and economic aspects.

( Ravi Dutt Bajpai is currently pursuing a Masters in International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is associated with the Institute for Post Colonial Studies in Melbourne and is a regular social and political commentator with the Hindi daily, Prabhat Khabar, published from Bihar and Jharkhand. With expertise on China, India and Australia in world/Asian politics, he is a regular commentator on Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Hindi in Australia. Email id:  bajpai.ravibajpai@gmail.com. )

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