Former United States Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Curtis S. Chin, now an Asia fellow for the Milken Institute, granted an exclusive interview to The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward on March 25 in Tokyo.
He explained how China’s hegemonic expansion has led to shrinking economies among the developing countries of Asia and highlighted the different circumstances of the European Union (EU) and East Asia regions. In the face of the challenges confronting the region, he said he has high expectations for Japan’s leadership and the role of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, adding “I am very hopeful that Japan has got a bit of its confidence back.”
One of the challenges is China, which he described as “not a confident nation” despite its rising influence in the world. “China right now is having its own crisis of confidence,” he said, explaining that the strength China projects is only surface-deep.
Although the domestic and international image is that Chinese President Xi Jinping is a very strong leader, Mr. Chin characterized him as “actually very weak, and thus his need to try to unite his nation under very nationalistic goals.” He added: It “is not a confident nation that moves to lockup its own lawyers; to lockup its own people; to lockup – some people are saying a million – Muslim Chinese.”
China’s Belt and Road
The former ambassador to the ADB demonstrated his familiarity with China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, and outlined constructive roles the ADB could play in the region.
Saying he hoped the ADB would be “more innovative,” he expressed the need for “other multilateral financial institutions or international financial intuitions in this (Asian) region” to play a bigger role in helping “countries fight poverty.” He warned “the verdict is very mixed on China’s existing debt diplomacy,” bringing up examples of Sri Lanka’s hefty loans and Malaysia’s decision to stop work on a major railway project due to the heavy costs.
He acknowledged, though, that some countries “have benefited from Chinese financial assistance.”
Conflict Risk High in Asia, in Contrast to the E.U.
“There is a military risk in Asia that people really don’t see so much in Europe,” said the former ambassador. He added, “European countries have benefited from the E.U. in terms of peace.”
“France and Germany were always fighting in the old days. Now, there is not that fear.” In contrast, he pointed out, “There is a very real fear in Asia that North Korea can attack South Korea [and] Japan.”
Still, “the real threat right now is China as it militarizes the South China Sea…. China has been able to disrupt ASEAN’s mechanisms,” said the Milken institute Asia fellow. Under the circumstances, “Japan can play a very positive role in this region — in East Asia — to ensure a peaceful region.”
The situation of China’s aggressive militarization in the South China Sea has accelerated the level of importance of the U.S. military’s “repositions” in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the former ambassador.
Mr. Chin emphasized that the purpose of the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is “to protect a free trade system. He added: “We are not here to invade countries. We are here to help countries and ensure freedom of navigation of the seas, freedom of flight in the air.”
Talking about the Indo-Pacific, the former ambassador pointed out that “Indo” is not just India, but also includes the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
In his view, now is the time to think about how the U.S. can supplement its military pivot to Asia with more robust engagement in the entire Indo-Pacific region. On this, he pointed out that the U.S. has poured more investment into ASEAN countries than the combined investments of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Mr. Chin said a few people are aware of this — a situation he would like to see corrected.
Mr. Chin introduced the views of businessmen and government officials in Asia, particularly South East Asia, who have told him that they absolutely agree with U.S. President Donald Trump’s way of dealing with the China issues. Their reasons, he explained, are that, “Chinese are stealing technology, and Chinese are forcing the transfer of technologies [in exchange] for access to the [Chinese] market.”
The former ambassador said he disagreed with President Trump’s “language or his style,” though he agreed with the President’s goals. In his words, “The goal is a correct one to move towards a more sustainable trading relationship, really, between the two biggest economies in the world.”
He brought up Japan, pointing out it “has tremendous capital, but often it just sits as cash on the balance sheets of a company. These Japanese companies need to think differently about increasing the willingness to take on some risk for greater return.”
Underlying his expectation for Japan’s initiatives in the region, he said the days of “two superpowers” are past. “It is not just the Soviet Union and the U.S. — those days are gone.” In the face of China’s power projection, he emphasized that at least one player is needed to act as a counterbalance to China. In his view, “if not Japan, who can it be?”
Mr. Chin said he looks forward to what he referred to as the coming “terrific year” for Japan, with the scheduling of the Group of 20 (G20) summit, Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and Osaka Expo. It shows, he said, that “Japan has regained its confidence.”
He concluded: “My hope is that Japan will continue to move forward. It will be in the interest of the region and the world if Japan moves forward and plays a more outward-looking role for this [Asia-Pacific] region and for the world.”
Authors: Kazuyuki Sakamoto at The Sankei Shimbun and Mizuki Okada at JAPAN Forward