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Last week’s celebrations in Beijing, marking the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel proclamations, from Delhi’s perspective, might have looked like a ritual that had to be performed. For China, though, the occasion was about mobilising regional political support, including from India, for a new security framework that President Xi Jinping has been promoting with some vigour.
As it rises to become a great power, China is determined to reconstitute Asian geopolitics, which had been dominated by the United States since the end of World War II. Central to Xi’s argument is the proposition that the US security role in Asia is a manifestation of outmoded Cold War thinking. He is suggesting that American alliances must be replaced by a new regional security order.]
Xi has affirmed that “in the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia. The people of Asia have the capability and wisdom to achieve peace and stability in the region through enhanced cooperation.” Heady stuff indeed. This kind of rhetoric has not been heard in Asia for decades.
The Panchsheel is at the very heart of Xi’s conception of a new security order for Asia. The five principles were outlined by Zhou Enlai in separate joint statements with Jawaharlal Nehru and Burma’s U Nu in 1954. These principles — respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, cooperation for mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence — were later expanded at the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. The first summit of the non-aligned nations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1961 endorsed these principles.
Last week in Beijing, Xi argued that “it is no coincidence that the five principles of peaceful coexistence were born in Asia, because they embody the Asian tradition of loving peace”. Xi went on to add that, thanks to the contributions made by China, India and Myanmar, “these principles are accepted in other parts of Asia and the world”. For some, Xi’s attempt to recalibrate Panchsheel for its contemporary foreign policy needs might seem empty rhetoric at worst or political romanticism at best. A more careful look, however, would suggest China is dead serious.
The idea of “Asia for Asians” is of old provenance and has a record of repeated failures. Way back in 1940, imperial Japan called for a “bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western Powers”. If Tokyo’s call found some political resonance among those Asians yoked to the European empires, Japan’s own colonial ambitions exposed the limitations continued…