Asia is divided in its condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The more advanced economies, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, not only approved the resolution, but they had already imposed sanctions on Russia. Taiwan, too, although not represented at the UN, has expressed its condemnation of Russian actions and aligned itself with Western sanctions. However, many Asian countries have opted for a broadly neutral approach with significant differences between their positions. The most relevant ones are those of China and India.
First of all, Beijing is stuck in a limbo, neither condemning nor supporting Russia. It claims to do so in compliance with the principles of maintaining the territorial integrity of each country and non-interference in internal affairs, but at the same time acknowledges the special relationship between Russia and Ukraine and Russian security concerns. According to China, all the blame for the war falls on NATO and the US. While China is not condemning the Russian position, Beijing nevertheless is urging the parties to seek a diplomatic solution. Indeed, on March 1st the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba asked his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to mediate for a ceasefire. The request went nowhere, but since then Chinese senior officials and Xi Jinping himself conducted several diplomatic meetings with representatives from the US and European countries. Therefore, China’s position has gradually become clearer: Beijing fears the effect of economic sanctions and the loss of reputation at the international level for being held responsible along with Russia for the war’s casualties. This is why China is strongly advocating for a peaceful solution of the war and why it is warning against the damages that the sanctions might inflict to the global economy. However, this is not enough to push China to directly ask Putin to stop the invasion. Indeed, China sees the conflict through the lens of the great power competition. As a consequence, in the Chinese view: 1) the conflict is caused by NATO and it is up to them to solve it 2) China does not want to help the US contrast Russia since as soon as peace is restored, Biden will stick to his strategy of containing China 3) Xi Jinping does not want to recognise that Putin played him during the meeting they had in Beijing on February 4th. A certain degree of ambiguity is here to stay.
India’s abstention at the UN vote is of a different kind. Its position is not influenced by the great power competition, but rather by the long-term bilateral friendship between India and Moscow that dates back decades and was strengthened by a treaty of friendship signed during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. More than 60% of the Indian military equipment is supplied by Russia, and last December Putin visited India, even though he had skipped multilateral summits like the G-20 in October in Rome and the COP26 in Glasgow in November. Modi and Putin signed a 99-points joint statement following the summit and highlighting a number of key areas for advancing bilateral cooperation, including civil nuclear and space, defence, transport and connectivity. The two sides agreed to boost annual trade to US$30 billion by 2025 and signed some 28 investment pacts including deals on arms, steel, shipbuilding, coal and energy. An economic deal helped heal the wound that India’s abstention caused to its relationship with Japan. Tokyo and New Delhi are the two main drivers behind the concept of the Indo-Pacific, but Japanese officials were not pleased by India’s decision to save its relationship with Moscow. The agreements signed during the 14th annual bilateral summit on March 19th might be a step towards a reconciliation, even if the two Prime Ministers Fumio Kishida and Narendra Modi clearly agreed to disagree on the war in Ukraine.
The members of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, took different positions on the matter. The ASEAN had previously declared itself largely neutral in the days leading up to the vote in the General Assembly. However, this position was only partially reflected in the vote in the General Assembly, where the majority of the members voted in favour of the resolution, except for Vietnam and Laos who abstained. It might seem surprising that Myanmar, whose military junta - in power since the February 2021 coup d'état - has regularly expressed its support for Russia, defining recent actions as justified, voted in favour. However, this discrepancy in the UN vote is due to the fact that Myanmar’s representative to the UN was appointed by the previous democratic government, not by the military junta (as for Afghanistan, whose representative was not chosen by the Taliban regime). Russia is Myanmar’s main arms supplier and, while the world condemned the 2021 coup and isolated the country, Putin maintained strong ties with the Burmese military junta, which would hardly risk alienating one of the few remaining allied voices.
There are three main consequences of those positions. First of all, it creates a wider intra-regional divide with China. The leading regional economies – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – not only approved the UN resolution, but also strongly criticised Russia and applied sanctions. That move is set to widen the gap between the countries that oppose autocracies and those that support them. The regional implication is a rising ideological fracture with the strongest autocracy in East Asia, Xi Jinping’ s China, which will impact the relationship between China and those countries. Democracy versus autocracy might become an increasingly more relevant fault line in the region. Second, the current divide on judging Russia’s invasion will affect cohesion among Quad members, especially India and Japan. The Quad framework is where this break might be felt most keenly, and the Quad itself might partially evolve from a military framework to a flexible one more focused on the economic pillar. Third, the Ukraine war and the pandemic have shown that asymmetric interdependence is a fact, and that excessive economic exposure is no longer merely an academic question but a real component of modern warfare. Consequently, the reconstruction of supply chains away from China will be once more a national priority for the top regional economies. The “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” that the Biden administration will present in the next weeks might be a significant step towards decoupling from China in selected sectors.
In conclusion, the war in Ukraine and the response of Asian countries will strengthen the coalition of countries that fear China’s dominant role and the US will have a significant window of opportunity to create an economic environment less dependent on China and more linked to Washington. In addition, even if India has maintained its strong friendship with Russia, this should not affect its strategic goal of preventing China’s regional dominance.