Election 2020

Asian Nationalists Hold the Key to a More Effective U.S. China Strategy

Missing in the current U.S. debate on China is the question of Asian nationalism and how the United States could profitably align with it.

By , the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the crowd during celebrations of the country's 73rd Independence Day, at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15, 2019.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the crowd during celebrations of the country's 73rd Independence Day, at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15, 2019. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images

Top Trump administration officials have in recent months unveiled the framework for a comprehensive confrontation with China. The Democrats, on the other hand, say they don’t want to pursue a cold war with China—but are deeply divided over what their policy should be instead.

Missing from this debate is the question of Asian nationalism and how the United States could profitably align with it. “Nationalism” is not a popular term in the lexicon of the Western foreign-policy establishment. In Asia, however, nationalism is not only considered a virtue, but is deeply entrenched thanks to the living memory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.

Top Trump administration officials have in recent months unveiled the framework for a comprehensive confrontation with China. The Democrats, on the other hand, say they don’t want to pursue a cold war with China—but are deeply divided over what their policy should be instead.

Missing from this debate is the question of Asian nationalism and how the United States could profitably align with it. “Nationalism” is not a popular term in the lexicon of the Western foreign-policy establishment. In Asia, however, nationalism is not only considered a virtue, but is deeply entrenched thanks to the living memory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.
Asian nationalists are natural allies for the United States in preventing China’s rise as a regional hegemon.

If Chinese nationalism is widely seen as a major threat to stability and security in Asia, equally strong and similar national sentiments in other Asian countries ought to be an integral part of constructing regional stability. Asian nationalists are natural allies for the United States in preventing the rise of a regional hegemon.

During the World War II, the United States inspired Asian nationalists with the promise of supporting their liberation from European colonialism. But after the war, the United States abandoned the Asian nationalists when it backed the European colonial powers—such as France in Indochina—against the Soviet Union. Asia’s nationalists viewed the United States’ alliances during the Cold War as an external imposition. But the nationalists prevailed against European colonialism, Japanese imperialism, and Communist internationalism. They are not likely to be simply rolled over by China’s growing power.

If the United States is looking for an Asia strategy that is inexpensive, sustainable, rooted in regional realities, and able to mobilize enthusiastic partners ready to share the burden, it must empower Asian nationalists. Rather than letting Beijing continue to pose as the harbinger of an “Asia for Asians” and paint the United States as the external source of trouble, Washington must bet on the strong instincts of Asian elites to defend their territorial sovereignty and national identity. The rest—how the United States supports Asian nationalists to defend themselves against hegemony—is a matter of detail.

C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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