Following other publications from this Dossier, this commentary examines the Russo-Ukrainian war by pondering the implications for Asia’s balance of power and multilateral institutions. Despite the geographical distance from the violence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rekindled anti-colonial sentiments around Asia. Even traditionally less vocal civil societies have expressed their concern and emotional vicinity to the Ukrainian people. Among others, this was evident in China in the earliest moments of the war, when the Wu xin gongzuo 乌心工作 expression trended on social media. At the same time, however, Asian governments have adopted less engaged stances than their own civil societies, with China and India being particularly criticised for their indulgent approaches to Russia. As noted by Alice Ekman in another contribution to the Dossier, China “has publicly voiced its support for Russia’s ‘business as usual’ participation in international affairs”. Nonetheless, Singapore has joined in the sanctions imposed against Russia. Asian countries’ contrasting approaches have resulted in the Indonesian G20 Presidency’s invitation of the Russian and Ukrainian camps to the Summit. Despite these practical differences, somecross-national themes can be detected in Asia’s understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
The Russo-Ukrainian war as… a NATO conflict
In a previous article, Sofia Graziani and Giulia Sciorati identified the US-led NATO’s eastward expansion as a central theme in China’s political discourse on the Russo-Ukrainian war. As the two scholars indicated, “the crisis is seen [in China] as a ‘chess game between great powers’ (daguo boyi 大国博弈) behind which is a US hegemonic design”. In her contribution to this Dossier, Zhao Huirong presents a similar argument when analysing Beijing’s viewpoint of the conflict.
However, the conceptualisation of the war as a NATO-driven conflict does not solely emerge in China’s discourse but is a frame shared by other Asian states, too. As M. Waffaa Kharisma argues, Southeast Asian nations – especially Indonesia – treat the conflict as a Russian-NATO war, identifying a double standard in how the West narrates the war vis-à-vis past US-initiated conflicts (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan). Elżbieta Proń identifies a similar yet broader perspective in her analysis of Central Asia. The author recognises the war as a motivation for Central Asian nations to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy, “seeking greater engagement with multiple countries and international institutions”, above all the US and EU.
Shifting the analysis to a higher level of abstraction, what transpires from the studies of Asian countries’ current interpretations of the war is the conflict’s connection to great power competition and systemic polarisation, maintaining a West-Russia confrontation at the core. Aspects like territorial integrity, national sovereignty, and Ukrainian identity and culture have thus become secondary or non-existent elements in the conflict’s account around the continent.
The Russo-Ukrainian war as… a prioritisation of national interests
This tendency also determines the prioritization of national interests over any preventive ideological stance. The perception of war in Asia focuses more on t how to solve other economic and political issues rather than simply taking a side against Russia’s responsibility in the invasion. Susan Thornton correctly notes that Asia’s view of the war is different from the West’s. One of the major concerns in the region is the fate of the great power competition between the US and China. President Biden’s first trip to Asia is likely to deepen the divide and trigger long-term competition revolving around economic cooperation and integration as demonstrated by the interrelationships in major regional economic agreements, such as the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP) with China, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — focused on curbing SOEs and therefore posing a challenge to the Chinese economic model —, and the newly established US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). However, short-term issues drive the political choice of the region’s poorest countries that are highly reliant on Russia for food imports. In South Asia, these include in particular Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, who import over half of their cereals either from Russia or Ukraine. For these reasons, only the region’s most advanced economies – with the exception of Myanmar due to divergences between the ruling government and the previously appointed UN diplomatic representative – openly voiced their condemnation.
The Russo-Ukrainian war as… a litmus test for Russo-Indian relations
The greatest surprise at the start of the war was India’s refusal to condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine, an unexpected rupture from the Indo-Pacific bloc that has been taking shape over the last years (chiefly including the US, Japan, Australia, and South Korea). However, it was a coherent choice by the Indian government that dates back to its good relationship with Moscow since the Cold War and to Russia’s support of India at the UN vis-à-vis Pakistan, as illustrated by Diego Maiorano. The relationship was even revived a few months before the war: last December, President Putin visited Prime Minister Modi, agreeing on a 99-point joint statement to advance bilateral cooperation across connectivity, transport, civil, nuclear, space, and defense. Modi went as far as to defend his decision not to condemn Russia during Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit, when the two leaders discussed economic cooperation, avoiding their disagreement over the most sensitive political issue at the time —the war in Ukraine. Having said that, India quickly demonstrated its loyalty to the Quad partnership and its strategic goal of containing China. Overall, India’s positive relations with Russia do not imply it wants to align with the non-Western bloc led by Moscow and Beijing; rather, it might help New Delhi play the role of a balancing power in Eurasia, as suggested by Panda and Pankaj. Further testament to India’s support for the Indo-Pacific strategy is its participation in the IPEF, especially since the Indian government refused to join the RCEP and the CPTPP in the past.
 The expression is a wordplay that indicates a situation under which people are too concerned with following news from Ukraine to function.
 Ukraine is an observer party.
 The original article was written in Italian.