Briefing Overview

Title: The Era of Asian Diplomacy Has Arrived
Author: Chandran Nair
Approx. Reading Time: 7 minutes


The Era of Asian Diplomacy Has Arrived

Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, made international headlines for the second time since his re-election when he announced, during his recent trip to China, that he was cancelling the Belt and Road projects his predecessor, Najib Razak, had agreed with Beijing.

Western commentators have been raising the alarm about Belt and Road projects for several months now, though usually focused on geopolitical concerns around China’s growing influence. Yet Mahathir was able to cancel these projects without taking an aggressive and resistant stance towards China, which is often called for by those outside of Asia.

Why was Mahathir successful? Perhaps it is due to an “Asian” style of diplomacy that makes it easier to solve thorny issues. Increasingly, Asian countries are no longer looking to others, especially Western powers such as the US and EU, to help mediate regional issues.  Instead they look to solve problems on their own. This is a reality that Western powers are finding difficult to come to terms with.  They are accustomed to believing they have to be at the centre in resolving all global issues and the final arbiters of what is right and wrong. They could not be more wrong.   From a similar perspective, it is time the Western media, purporting to be global, paid attention to and gave credit to the efforts of non-western actors rather than ignore or dismiss them.

So what was interesting about the approach of Mahathir towards the Chinese? The first is that Mahathir is the world’s oldest statesman and is held in great respect by much of the non-Western world.  It is interesting and telling that he is not taken seriously in the West.  He is however aware of how he is viewed in Asia and how the Chinese would regard him, despite Malaysia being a small player in the bigger scheme of things.  Both parties knew what was at play.  It is rooted in traditional respect for elders and even when they are weaker.  ‘Soft power’  is often seen as a purely Western characteristic and has some narrow self-serving definitions and interpretations.   Yet as Mahathir’s visit to China shows, Asian countries possess their own version of soft power rooted in deep cultural norms and expressed through competence, proven success and a respect for the power of seeking mutual understanding.

They are not fixated on an ‘our way or the highway’ approach, nor are they culturally comfortable with shameless displays of superiority towards weaker or poorer adversaries.  The attitude of the US towards Iran for many years illustrates a different diplomatic style.

Mahathir could have been confrontational and could have called upon external actors, such as Western powers and international institutions in order to get his way.  Instead, he talked to China.  He had a firm position that he was not going to back down from, yet gave Beijing the respect of talking face-to-face.  When he was negotiating in China with the Premier and President he did not criticise the Chinese but instead said the previous Malaysian government was to blame for agreeing to such unfavourable terms.  He gave the Chinese face.

Mahathir’s trip to China is not the only example where Asian countries have taken things into their own hands. President Moon Jae-In has spearheaded a series of negotiations with his North Korean counterpart, leading to announcements to finally end the Korean War and a call for the complete denuclearisation of the Peninsula.

Whilst the Western press focused on the meeting of the US and North Korean Presidents, Asian diplomacy, led by President Moon, was vital in creating a new framework. Western media also seemed to also ignore the significant fact that President Kim visited President Xi three times in Beijing prior to the media event in Singapore where Trump and Kim met.  The significance of this was not lost to most Asians.

There are other examples.  Take the South China Sea – another geopolitical question where Western observers support taking a hard line against China.  They portray China as the villain, despite US military presence in the region being so much larger and in many ways more destabilising.   Yet in November of last year, Vietnam and China agreed to work towards a peaceful resolution of the dispute.  President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has also tried to combine a firm position on the South China Sea with a willingness to talk with Beijing.  This is in contrast to the efforts of Duterte’s predecessor, President Aquino, who brought China to the International Court to adjudicate the South China Sea issue.  Aquino won, but there were no actual practical effects on the ground.

Why have Asian countries been more successful when they have acted on their own, without external partners?

First, the West has often proffered a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ approach.  There is a narrow range of possibilities which are acceptable.  Outside of this range, the West believes a solution would be worse than the problem. This means issues are left to fester and worsen over time.

In some cases, Western politicians argue that even having a conversation is itself a concession to the other side. Some governments refuse to start negotiation until the other side has made significant concessions, significantly seeking to humiliate the other side, often under the pretext of a superior moral position. Western leaders that do try and break the mold, such as President Obama with Cuba and Iran and later President Trump with North Korea, are heavily criticized for ‘giving something up for nothing in return’.

Asian leaders do not labour under this assumption. Asian leaders – or at least the ones who are making real strides towards solving long-term issues – understand that solutions only come about when countries talk to each other. They do not take the holier than thou approach typical of the West.  As the old adage goes ‘you can only make peace with your enemies’; and that means not deepening divisions by threats about sanctions and military action.

Second, Western powers sometimes fail to understand that their presence is not neutral, despite their protestations to the contrary.  European nations once governed Asian countries as colonies, seeing them as subjects, rather than equals. These attitudes prevail and are deep rooted, particularly when it comes to dealing with nations in the Middle East and Africa – even more than those in Asia.  This can make it difficult for Western capitals to accept non-Western countries as countries with their own views and interests.  When they involve themselves in non-Western geopolitical issues, their presence is seen through the lens of previous colonial experiences.

Yet when Asian countries loosen their ties to the West, their views are dissociated from this history. To return to the example of Duterte: he has sometimes used harsh language to describe the South China Sea issue, sometimes even harsher than his more eloquent predecessor. Because Duterte has pledged to take a more independent path for the Philippines, other countries do not read this criticism as working in tandem with Washington’s views on the subject.

Asian countries usually employ a conciliatory approach to diplomacy, when dealing with other regional powers.  In an interview after his election victory, Dr. Mahathir said “I have always regarded China as a good neighbour, and also as a very big market for whatever it is that we produce. Malaysia is a trading nation. We need markets, so we can’t quarrel with such a big market.”  Chinese leaders never attempt to openly lecture other leaders or nations about their policies, no matter how much they disagree.  Such an approach does not pave the way for diplomacy or problem solving. Chinese, Indian and Indonesian leaders, with a combined population of about three billion, have similar diplomatic norms.

Finally, the United States and other Western countries have always seen the threat of military intervention as a viable option in foreign policy issues, even after the disasters in Iraq and Libya. The State Department continues to state that ‘all options are on the table’.  ‘All options’ being code for military intervention.

Meanwhile, Asian powers follow a policy of restraint in dealing with their regional partners, while actively seeking engagement and mutual benefit.  The Association for Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) foundational principle of non-interference remains intact.  ASEAN members promote further engagement and generate tangible results. The most recent example is the agreement of a single-draft document between all members of ASEAN that will now be the basis of negotiations for a future code of conduct regarding the territorial claims of South China Sea between China and other claimant powers. This diplomatic breakthrough was hardly reported in the Western media, presumably because the Western powers were not involved.

These behavioural norms will become even more important as American politics become even more erratic, as environmental sustainability becomes more prominent and China and other Asian powers become global economic players.

The Western media should not be surprised when trips like Dr. Mahathir’s get results, and start highlighting successes.  At the same time, Asian leaders should continue using their diplomatic traits to solve regional geopolitical issues and shape this new era of Asian diplomacy.

Chandran Nair

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Briefing Overview

Title: The Era of Asian Diplomacy Has Arrived
Author: Chandran Nair