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Ukraine’s Implications for Asia

Ukraine’s Implications for Asia

The conflict in Ukraine is not simply a regional crisis. Asian nations are watching to see whether a revanchist great power can launch a military attack against a pro-Western neighbor with impunity. There are nine lessons Asians will be looking to learn from the biggest security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

First, economic interdependence is no safeguard against military conflict. Europe is Russia’s largest trading partner and the primary market for Russia’s energy exports, which provide 50 percent of government revenue. Moscow craves a trade and investment agreement with the United States. These facts have not deterred Russia from invading Crimea — just as Japan-China interdependence has not moderated Chinese revisionism in the Senkaku Islands.

Second, autocracies overestimate their power and leverage, while democracies underestimate theirs. Russia is a declining power with horrific social indicators kept afloat by oil and gas revenue. Its "allies" — Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia — do not form the coalition of the future. China has much more going for it. But the hype around its rise has inflated Beijing’s sense of itself, while diminishing Western and Japanese confidence. Yet the big democracies have far more internal political resilience than China’s regime, whose greatest fear is of its own people.

Third, globalization creates acute economic vulnerabilities for authoritarian states. The Russian central bank itself has suggested that two-thirds of the $56 billion net capital outflow from Russia in 2012 may have derived from illegal activities. This creates ample scope for Western governments to target the foundation of President Vladimir Putin’s regime: his associates’ ability to use state power to accumulate private wealth. As the world’s largest trading nation, China is exceptionally vulnerable to the economic disruption that would naturally accompany any conflict in Asia.

Fourth, the foreign policy of an authoritarian state is bound up with the nature of its domestic regime. Putin is not merely trying to reconstitute the Russian empire. He is also playing defense against the risk that a Ukrainian-style people’s revolution could one day topple a similarly corrupt and kleptocratic regime in Moscow. And he is flagrantly violating a series of agreements with the West on the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. Asian nations facing territorial disputes with Beijing understand that Chinese assertiveness abroad is an extension of a regime unconstrained by law or accountability at home.

Fifth, status quo democracies suffer from competitors’ first-mover advantage if they merely react to provocations, rather than actively shaping the security environment. The West had no plans in place to counteract Moscow’s move against Ukraine — even though Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 to "protect" Russian-speaking minorities wrote the playbook for the current intervention. In East Asia, China has created new facts on the ground, air, and sea with its missile buildup opposite Taiwan, its armed takeover of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and its unilateral air defense identification zone over Japanese-administered islands — at little cost.

Sixth, allies must guard against divisions sown by adversaries to secure a strategic advantage. In Ukraine, Putin banked on a NATO alliance in disarray. He clearly does not fear or respect U.S. President Barack Obama and is contemptuous of Europe, whose banks and affluent neighborhoods welcome with open arms Russian tycoons and their money. China has used market leverage to force European retreats on issues such as human rights and Tibet. In both cases, deterrence is diminished when allies appear mercantilistic and irresolute.

Seventh, there is no substitute for American leadership — in its absence, competitors will move to fill the vacuum. The West’s limp response to the Russian army’s march into Georgia signalled to Putin that armed revisionism against non-NATO members carried little cost — as proven when former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smilingly announced a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations only months later. Obama’s successive drawing of lines in the sand on Syria, which Bashar Assad stepped right over, demonstrated to his Russian ally that American warnings (like U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s that Russian intervention in Ukraine would be a "grave mistake") mean little. No wonder Japan and other U.S. allies are worried.

Eighth, it is a mistake for Washington to engage regional competitors — whether China, Russia, or Iran — at the expense of regional allies. Obama’s rollback of missile defenses in Europe to please Putin upset NATO partners. Similarly, Tokyo and New Delhi remain anxious about a U.S.-China consortium that might make decisions at their expense. America’s Middle Eastern allies have similar fears about Obama’s bid for a political settlement with Tehran. In fact, Washington has greater leverage against challengers when its alliances are strong than when they are neglected.

Finally, domestically driven political liberalization can shift the balance of power. We see this in Ukraine, where the new government tilts west, not east. In Myanmar, political reform has reoriented the country out of China’s orbit. Both Moscow and Beijing viewed these political openings as strategic setbacks. This is one reason why Tokyo, New Delhi, Jakarta, and Washington should continue to strengthen democratic institutions in neighboring countries.

Most Ukrainians want to move closer to Europe, just as most Asians want to live in open societies not subordinated to a new Sinosphere. In both Europe and Asia, it would be morally and strategically irresponsible not to stand with them.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.