While differences might remain in the interpretation of how the war in Ukraine could have been avoided and what the consequences will be, it is unanimously understood that the conflict has recompacted the Western front and has in fact divided the world. This division was very visibile on 2 March, at the United Nations, when the General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion was passed with 141 votes in favour, 35 abstentions, and 5 against. The resolution had a strong echo in the Indo-Pacific region, where it is bound to influence the system of alliances, strengthening some and weakening others.
It is certainly not surprising that the only Asian country to vote against the motion in support of Ukraine was North Korea. Fifteen Asia-Pacific countries not only voted in favour, but even co-sponsored the resolution: Australia, Cambodia, Fiji, Japan, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, South Korea, Samoa, Singapore, East Timor, and Thailand.
The votes of Southeast Asian countries
Despite the reluctance of most governments to take a firm stand against Russian aggression and the drab statement from ASEAN - Association of Southeast Asian Nations, most of the region supported the resolution. Out of the ten ASEAN members as many as eight - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - voted in favour, as did East Timor, a non-member of the Association.
While the vote by Singapore, America's closest ally in the region, and that by the Philippines, where the Americans have naval bases, were not unexpected, Thailand's vote was somewhat surprising. This country, led by a former general elected following the 2014 coup, has in recent years forged increasingly close ties with China, often to the detriment of ITS traditional ally, America. It should be highlighted, however, that despite the vote, Bangkok has not yet made a statement of condemnation, and is not expected to want to jeopardise relations with Moscow. Unlike many countries in the area, Thailand does not depend on the Kremlin for weapons, but for tourism. In fact, Russians are among the most numerous visitors to the Kingdom and the tourism sector accounts for about 23% of the Kingdom's GDP.
The vote by Cambodia, which together with Laos represents the Chinese axis in South Asia, was also surprising, as it seems difficult to imagine that Phnom Penh could have voted in favour of the resolution without having first informed Beijing. A choice probably dictated by the fact that - at the moment - Cambodia presides over ASEAN, in which the majority of countries sought to side with Ukraine, but perhaps also a signal from Beijing AS to its position on this issue that continues to be unclear.
Myanmar's vote doesn't count: the country's seat at the United Nations is still held by Kyaw Moe Tun, the ambassador appointed by the civilian government ousted by last year's military coup.
Certainly, Hanoi’s abstention has been noted. Vietnam is the country with the highest growth prospects in the whole of Southeast Asia, partly because it has been able to attract international investments that have left China in recent years. Additionally, according to the DBS Group of Singapore, it will grow by 8% this year. But, it is also a country on which the Americans are betting as a strategic partner to counterbalance China's role. However, for years now Hanoi has been practicing its traditional no-enemy policy. On the one hand, it asks the United States for help in defending the archipelagos of the PARACELS and Spratly islands, claimed by Beijing; on the other, it keeps the historic "communist" axis of the world, with Russia and China, firmly in place. And judging by the way the war between Ukraine and Russia is ignored by the national media, it is clear that the Vietnamese Communist Party will do anything to avoid choosing a side.
South Asia caution
In South Asia, there were four votes in favour of the Ukraine motion: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. Four countries, however, abstained: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
In Afghanistan the situation is similar to Myanmar, as the UN delegation is still composed of representatives of the former government of the Republic of Afghanistan, a pro-American government. Among the abstainers India stands out most, an indispensable partner of the Quad, the alliance between the United States, Australia, Japan and India, which is back in vogue with the new American administration.
"India is unlikely to publicly condemn Russia," Harsh Pant, director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, tells us.
"Partly there are operational reasons, in that India has just evacuated the 2,000 or so Indian students who were in Ukraine, and in order to do this Modi needed to talk to both Putin and ZELENSKY. But the main reason is that 50-60% of Indian armaments are Russian. India has been trying to diversify military supplies since the end of the Cold War. Today New Delhi is also buying from the United States, France, and Israel, but the link to Russia is still too strong to be abruptly cut off.
Modi is facing a major challenge on the Himalayan border, where the Indian army still faces the Chinese army. India's dependence on Russia is for defence purposes and cannot be replaced overnight. Delhi is in a difficult position. It needs Russia and its weapons, but also the United States and the West to manage Beijing's expansionist aims."
Modi's challenge is a balancing act, caught between Western alliances and the historic friendship with Russia. India chose again to abstain in Geneva, on 4 March, when the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution in favour of an international commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Ukraine by the Russians.
China waits while Japan backs the West
"The Ukraine issue is a clarifying and defining moment. It is a topical moment that calls for a choice, either you are on one side or the other." This is the opinion of Derek Mitchell, President of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and an expert on the area, speaking to us from Washington. "India is certainly a country that will have to deal with this problem as the war goes on. The same impasse that China is in. Beijing is doing everything it can to avoid having to take a clear position."
A view that Bonnie Glaser, head of the German Marshall Fund's Asia Program, also confirms to us: "I think Xi Jinping was taken by surprise. The ideal scenario for China would have been a diplomatic solution in which NATO agreed that there would be no further enlargement, perhaps with divisions between the United States and its allies; a situation from which Beijing would have benefited. In fact, they found exactly the opposite, namely a crackless cohesion of the Western Front. Sure, China has the opportunity to help Russia mitigate the impact of sanctions, imposed on Russia by the US and its allies, through Chinese banks. But I doubt Beijing will go too far. I don't think Beijing is willing to jeopardise its access to the international banking system; it won't want to risk further restrictions on access to high technology, which is already a problem today."
"China has chosen a cause that contradicts its entire political beliefs," Derek Mitchell continues, "from the fact that conflicts are resolved through diplomacy, to the defence of territorial integrity, to the principle of sovereignty...that is the essence of the One China policy, the core theory that allows, in Beijing's eyes, to view Taiwan as a rebellious province whose fate is in the orbit of Greater China. To get out of this ideological impasse, the ploy is to accuse the United States and NATO of being the cause of the conflict. But despite the Chinese not speaking of Russian aggression against Ukraine, Chinese embarrassment remains."
A country which has not changed course and seems to be becoming more pro-Western every day is Japan. "If we tolerate the use of force to change the status quo, that will also have an impact on Asia," said Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who did not hesitate to replicate Western sanctions on Moscow. Sanctions on Russia have also been imposed by Singapore and South Korea. Seoul has banned exports of strategic items: electronics, semiconductors, computers, information, sensors and lasers, also adhering to the Swift banking measures. This line should also be confirmed by the new president, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, of the People Power Party, who expressed his desire for a greater alignment with the US ally during the electoral campaign. This last element is accompanied by the growing intransigence shown by conservatives towards China and the willingness to resume the interrupted dialogue with Japan, in the framework of a renewed understanding between democracies against authoritarianism in East Asia. _
In more pro-Western Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines) the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression toward Ukraine could encourage his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to do the same with Taiwan is coming up.
That's why, while there have been many clarifications from Beijing about how the two cases are not remotely the same, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought a veritable wave of solidarity to Taipei. In addition to the obvious condemnation by President Tsai Ing-wen, who said she felt strong empathy for Ukraine - "We are all witnessing the invasion of a Great Country against an infinitely smaller country" -, in Taiwan a real solidarity race for the collection of aid for Ukrainians has been triggered, coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On recent weekends, demonstrations have taken place in front of the Russian representation on the island and in the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, an area full of cafes and bars often frequented by young people.
The first moves of the Biden Administration made it clear that the United States was focused on making the Indo-Pacific region the centre of the new American foreign policy. Now, many are wondering whether the war in Ukraine will allow the US administration to continue to carry such a heavy burden and whether China will take advantage of the U.S. commitment on the European front, perhaps accelerating aggressive action against Taiwan.
"China doesn't like to have its agenda dictated by outside events," Derek Mitchell continues, “Certainly I don't think they'll wait forever, but China's agenda this year is busy. Xi Jinping has the 20th Party Congress, he has to think about his re-election and make sure that the pact with Russia does not backfire; then they have their own internal economic problems, and finally the pandemic whose recent developments in Hong Kong confirm that the chapter is not yet closed.
Rather, I think that, as usual, China is studying what is happening and learning. In this case, I think that observation will produce some extra deterrence. They already have the example of Myanmar where the strong Burmese army, more than a year later, can't get a grip on a very poor but determined to resist country, so it remains dysfunctional. Let's remember that Myanmar is fundamental for Beijing for its outlet on the Bay of Bengal.
China had not taken into account that the war would affect the whole of Ukraine, also a fundamental part of its Silk Road project. And even here they must see how Putin had not calculated the Ukrainian resistance. A situation that puts Beijing in a reprehensible position from a humanitarian point of view, and again, in an economically dysfunctional one.
I hope, therefore, that China learns the lesson that democratic societies should not be underestimated. We can look divided and weak until you attack us, and then we become quite strong and united very quickly."
It is likely that the Chinese narrative will try to use the conflict by waving the Afghan and Ukrainian bogeyman, to send messages aimed at discouraging Taipei's desire for independence: "You cannot trust the Americans because they will leave you alone when you need them." However, the massacre of Ukrainian cities, the resistance plus European solidarity, which this time has gone as far as sending weapons, could have the opposite effect, STRENGTHENING the Western front more and more, and perhaps even flushing out those countries that, like India and Vietnam, ask for protection without exposing themselves.
"There is also the possibility that Beijing wants to mediate, that it wants to play the role of hero," adds Mitchell, "something that has been asked of them by several parties, but I don't know if Beijing is ready, and in any case I don't think it will expose itself without the certainty of success."
Whether China is ready to mediate remains to be understood, even if the recent phone call between Xi Jinping and President Biden seems to create a glimmer of hope. Censorship on Chinese media has softened, and here and there images of the Ukrainian war appear. A new directive explains that pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian posts must be avoided, as well as pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian posts, while previously pro-Russian opinions were tolerated. It remains prohibited to criticise the ‘strategic partnership’ between Xi and Putin. The Chinese president has invested 10 years in it and is now afraid it will backfire
"Despite the phone call to Biden and the condemnation of the war, China will continue to maintain an attitude poised between Russian reasons and the need to recognise Ukraine's sovereignty," comments Yun Sun, China programme director at the Stimson Center, to the China Morning Post.
"I don't think Beijing has any interest in giving arms to Moscow. But, if on the one hand this war harms China, because of the inevitable economic consequences on the world economy, on the other hand it allows China to have an advantage because it keeps the United States and NATO engaged on the European front, to the detriment of the much-proclaimed Pivot to Asia policy. There is then to understand what real possibilities China would have to stop the war and Putin."
What is certain is that the war between the Russians and the Ukrainians has warmed the souls of the Taiwanese, awakening demonstrations of solidarity in Myanmar, among dissidents in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Developments that can only worry Beijing. It is also from this point of view that Xi Jinping’s request of equal dignity with the US should be considered: "We must guide the development of China-US relations on the right path, but we must also assume our international responsibilities to make efforts for peace and tranquillity in the world".
The recent phone call between the two presidents can represent an opening for a new season of dialogue, even if it does not clarify the issue of Taiwan. Confirming that from this war not only a new Europe is formed, but indeed a new world.
"The victorious warriors first win and then go to war," said Sun Tsu, a famous Chinese general and philosopher; this is to say that it will take some time to understand what direction China will take, and that Beijing itself will stall before deciding on its next move.