Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of the global order, and the extent and outcome of the conflict are not yet clear. What is clear is that basic principles underpinning almost seventy years without major power conflict are at stake. If a significant power’s attempt at territorial aggression against a sovereign neighbour – no matter the complicated history – is successful, we will have reverted to a less peaceful era.
Even before Russia’s war, stability in Asia was increasingly fragile. The Myanmar military ousted the civilian government in a coup, Kim Jong Un was poised for a new round of nuclear brinksmanship, and Chinese muscle-flexing and deteriorating U.S.-China relations had the region on edge. Covid-19 is still battering populations and economies and Asia-Pacific communities continue to worry about rising seas, floods and climate change. In the wake of recent events, multilateral structures that have helped keep the peace and promote prosperity in Asia have weakened. ASEAN is roiled by events in Myanmar, the WTO has broken down, the G20 and UN are stymied over Russia’s membership and veto, and APEC’s momentum toward further trade liberalisation in the region has slowed. Issues needing to be addressed before the Covid-19 pandemic are now further pushed off by events in Ukraine.
Can Asia avoid being the locus of further conflict in the coming years and how will events in Ukraine affect Asia’s prospects? First, we should note that the Ukraine invasion is seen much differently in many parts of Asia than in the West. Many consider it far away, outside their zone of immediate interest. Others see it through the lens of great power rivalry as a proxy war and are reluctant to take sides or get involved. Some countries have imposed sanctions, but most have not. And among the public in Asia, there is a surprising sympathy for Russia because of historical ties or other reasons.
Concerning the Ukraine conflict’s impact on Asia, most of the focus in the West has been on China’s response to Russia’s invasion, whether China will assist Russia in the current conflict and/or whether the Ukraine situation has implications for a future showdown over Taiwan. This focus was precipitated by Xi Jinping’s ill-conceived declaration, together with Vladimir Putin at the Olympic opening in Beijing on February 4, of a “no limits” friendship between Russia and China that appeared to sanction Russia’s February 24th invasion. The Chinese have subsequently stated that they did not expect the Russian moves but have not condemned them. While Chinese officials claim to support peace talks and oppose violations of territorial integrity and sovereignty, they are unwilling to criticise Putin or to take an active role in stopping the fighting and are continuing to trade with Moscow. China views the conflict in Ukraine through the prism of what it views as an escalating U.S. policy of containment toward China and believes it will need support from Moscow for the geopolitical struggle ahead.
The connection between events in Ukraine and a possible Chinese move on Taiwan is tenuous. The Chinese leadership sees the two situations as not analogous and has a strategy for Taiwan that will not be affected by outside events. There will be lessons from the Russian invasion once the outcome is clear, of course, and the Chinese will not make the Russian mistake of thinking an attack will be easy. But events in Ukraine will not change the Chinese calculus about whether to use force if needed to keep Taiwan from formal separation. The most evident parallel between the situations with Ukraine and Taiwan is the pattern of great power grievance regarding perceived transgression of security red lines and the persistent dismissal by the U.S. of these concerns. Increased communication, diplomacy and consideration regarding these grievances are in order if a similar tragedy in Asia is to be avoided.
The situation in Ukraine is still playing out. Still, it is clear that the international system is teetering on the brink of division and possibly dissolution, no matter the outcome. Current frictions are sharpening the choices for the major world players, and their moves in the coming period will have far-reaching and profound consequences. China’s clinging to its neutral position on a core UN Charter principle has damaged its credibility and casts doubt on its leadership role in the international system. China may have concluded there is no way to improve its toxic relations with the U.S., but it should not choose to be tied to Russia in a new Cold War dynamic that will run counter to its interests in a stable and peaceful global order. For its part, the West must be focused on stopping this conflict as soon as possible. The unravelling of the global system that is likely to accompany a prolonged and escalating fight with Russia will severely damage the interests of the West, first and foremost, and the rest of the world. We must try to preserve as much of what has been built over the last seventy-five years while working seriously and responsibly to incorporate needed updates. Doing so is much less dangerous than the alternatives.