PacNet #34 – Why ASEAN should heed the distant tolling of bells

It is hard to know what deft (or otherwise) diplomacy is going on behind the scenes in ASEAN-led architecture in the lead-up to the season of summitry, most importantly the East Asia Summit (EAS). This includes the range of precursor senior officials meetings which often set the conditions for ministerial and leaders-level meetings later in the year. But diplomacy will need to be deft to find a position that at least balances the concerns of all EAS partners with respect to Russia’s participation.

Based on public-facing statements and commentary, right now it appears there is no balance. ASEAN does not seem to have taken action that has imposed costs on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, acknowledged the concerns of other EAS members, or expressed ASEAN condemnation of Russia’s actions.

ASEAN foreign ministers did issue three statements in relation to Ukraine: one calling for restraint and de-escalation on Feb. 26; one calling for a ceasefire on March 3; and one about the killing of civilians and humanitarian access on April 8.

While this was welcome, these statements did not mention Russia. They thus did not challenge Russia’s reprehensible actions.

ASEAN countries also largely supported the UN General Assembly resolution on March 2, which “deplored in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanded Russia’s immediate, complete, and unconditional withdraw from Ukraine territory (Laos and Vietnam abstained); and on March 24 in relation to the humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine (Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam abstained). But only the Philippines voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to suspend Russia on April 7.

ASEAN’s statements and each country’s UN voting record indicates the limits of action for individual ASEAN members and ASEAN as a bloc. Singapore, however, has been the most forward-leaning, applying sanctions against Russia).

Cambodia, as the chair of ASEAN, with Indonesia as chair of the G20, and Thailand as chair of APEC, issued a joint statement on May 4 saying: “we are determined to work with all our partners and stakeholders to ensure a spirit of cooperation.”

Russia no doubt was pleased to see this, stating publicly that the statement represented “an important contribution to strengthening multilateralism, building an atmosphere of cooperation and trust, mutual respect and a reciprocal consideration of interests, not only in the region but also globally.”

While it does not make explicit references to Russia, the trilateral statement indicates that the chairs of these three international groupings will not exclude Russian participation.

Make no mistake, despite the waves of mis- and disinformation and fallacious narratives, Russia’s actions are a breach of international law, both in the principle of its invasion as well as in its ongoing execution—particularly as there are multiple reports detailing violations of the laws of war, and crimes against humanity occurring at the hands of Russian officers and soldiers.

But this is not just a breach of international law. It is also a trampling of the principles that ASEAN purports to hold dear—including sovereignty, non-interference, and the rule of law. These are the principles ASEAN has captured in its own Charter, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which, as a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, Russia is a party.

ASEAN has constantly voiced (almost in desperate, anxious tones) the need to maintain its centrality in the region’s institutional architecture. But centrality requires credibility. ASEAN risks its credibility by not taking stronger action.

ASEAN’s consensus-based and conservative approach means that it proceeds at the pace of the slowest member and lowest level of comfort to take action. ASEAN consensus is also influenced by the longstanding relations that some ASEAN members have with Russia, including on military sales. Through this approach, ASEAN seeks to maintain the status quo, to avoid confrontation with major powers or having to “choose sides.” That approach, however, constrains ASEAN’s ability to respond with agility to the shifting geostrategic reality and overlooks the threats to its longer-term interests.

Many countries in the region want ASEAN to maintain credibility and relevance, and believe it is important for regional stability. If ASEAN is to do so, it must take a stance against breaches of international law and (for the most part) universally accepted principles. Otherwise, those principles are moot.

Failure to take action is to legitimize and normalize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It ignores not only Ukraine’s current plight, but also Russia’s threats to other countries in Europe—including Sweden and Finland, who see the writing on the wall and have shifted their long-standing position about NATO membership.

It is important to recognise ASEAN’s rationale for not wanting to take sides. But this is not about taking sides with any one country. This is about taking the side of principle. It is essential to reinforce regional stability, security, and prosperity.

Expelling Russia from international fora where Moscow participate with Southeast Asian countries would be a step too far for ASEAN. But finding a better balance would be in order. A good start would be an explicit acknowledgement that Russia is the aggressor.

It is time ASEAN stepped up to demonstrate why it has become an integral part of the regional political architecture. Doing so will prove its value as a key platform in shaping and reinforcing norms of behavior.

Patrick O’Connor is the pseudonym of a non-American diplomat and former military officer who has worked on and studied Southeast Asia extensively. He has had several diplomatic postings throughout the Indo-Pacific and in Ukraine.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #22 – Feminist foreign policy and Ukraine: For now, Japan leads the way

A gendered war is taking place in Ukraine, powered by patriarchal authoritarianism that thrives on unencumbered violence. Some women bravely serve in Ukraine’s military, the media, and in support roles on the front lines. Yet stereotypical gendered norms have been reinforced as most refugees are women, while Ukrainian men must stay and fight. Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) principles seem ignored by the security sector, as women are absent in peace talks, and reports of sexual- and gender-based violence abound. By applying a feminist foreign policy (FFP) lens—focused on a re-imagination of conflict resolution and human security—we consider how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has influenced Indo-Pacific foreign policies, particularly aid, defense, diplomacy, trade, and immigration. We find that Japan stands out as demonstrating alignment with some FFP principles, and may be ripe for formal FFP adoption. Given other Asian states’ mixed responses, however, the invasion of Ukraine may split the Indo-Pacific on this framework.

Aid, sanctions, and immigration

First, FFP principles recommend consideration of women, children, and minority communities in aid provision, with emphasis on humanitarian aid over military/defensive responses. Tokyo has provided ¥12 billion ($95 million) in emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and promised more. This aid demonstrates consideration of women by including hygiene products alongside tents, winter clothing, and generators.

Japan is an above average official development assistance (ODA) contributor to gender equality as a member nation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Assistance Committee. To build on this achievement, Japan could stipulate requirements similar to its Jordanian Palestinian Refugees ODA program for its aid to countries accepting Ukrainian refugees. This program included Alleviation of Social Gaps, which prioritized the empowerment of women refugees through vocational training and access to reproductive health education.

A second plank of FFP is prioritization and allocation of resources to peace over state security, including “gender equality [and] … the human rights of all.” As such, arms trade with non-democratic countries that abuse human rights and subjugate women, and Indo-Pacific military build-up would signal anti-feminist responses. Japan has generally set a positive example by supporting Ukraine without inflaming conflict. Its commitment to restricting military equipment exports has led to its supply of bulletproof vests and non-lethal equipment, but no weapons (though it recently announced the shipment of drones). Tokyo, while a recipient of US extended nuclear deterrence, has also warned against any use of nuclear weapons, acknowledging the painful history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Third, emphasizing consultation with and equality of all impacted groups, an FFP perspective opposes neo-colonialism, the forceful control or influence of other states. Meanwhile, sanctions are not the preferred option because they typically hurt those already most vulnerable. Sanctions, however, are less militaristic than lethal support, and therefore more acceptable in FFP terms. Eight years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea, Japan failed to sanction Moscow in a bid to maintain diplomatic talks over islands both Russia and Japan claim as their own. By contrast, Japan has moved more decisively in 2022, following US and EU sanctions early on. To date, Japan has restricted Russian banks, and sanctioned oligarchs, companies, and military entities. While Japan still relies on Russian fuel, seafood, and various goods, it has revoked Russia’s most-favored nation trade status, impacting  ¥1.54 trillion ($12 billion) in imports.

Fourth, a country’s FFP would also need to include a generous immigration policy, in this case focusing on the 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees rather than state security. Japan has considered amending its limited immigration policy and opened its doors to friends and family members of its Ukrainian population. The new policy would allow them to stay longer or work.

It won’t be an easy fix—Japan’s past hesitancy towards refugees will require complete immigration policy transformation to align with FFP principles. In 2020, Japan approved 47 out of 3,936 asylum applications (1.19% of the total). Though an improvement from 2019’s 0.42% acceptance rate, other countries are accepting more Ukrainians in response to the crisis. Still, Tokyo seems determined to lessen restrictions. To demonstrate national support for the consideration of individual refugees, Japanese Foreign Minister Hiyashi Yoshimasa returned to home from Poland personally escorting 20 Ukrainian refugees.

A divided Indo-Pacific?

The provision of military aid is essential for FFP precedent. While Japan is all-but-mandated to follow FFP-aligned guidelines due to Article 9 restrictions, other countries with fewer hurdles can more easily adapt their aid distribution.

What precedent, then, does Japan’s restriction of military aid to Ukraine set for its future responses to a conflict in Asia? Furthermore, in case of a contingency—such as China invading Taiwan—how might the reactions of Indo-Pacific countries to the Ukraine crisis predict alignment with feminist values? There has been debate about whether comparing Taiwan to the invasion of Ukraine makes sense, but in either case we are likely to see both adhesion to and straying from FFP principles.

The Indo-Pacific is split on Ukraine. The only other Indo-Pacific nation to demonstrate a feminist-aligned response to Ukraine is New Zealand, which sanctioned Russia and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine instead of weapons. Australiadid all that and sent military aid. South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have been moderately aligned in their responses, with offers to support other countries’ refugee intakes financially and cut trade ties with Russia and implement sanctions, but refusing to accept Ukrainian refugees.

Most states, however, have been quiet on Russian sanctions and avoided direct criticism. Vietnam has vaguely condemned Russia, but abstained from voting on the March 2 UN Security Council resolution deploring the invasion. India has worked around Western sanctions, while China has criticized sanctions amid misogynistic remarks about Ukrainian women. Smaller countries like the Federated States of Micronesia have cut diplomatic relations with Russia without imposing sanctions. The Philippines offered military bases to the United States if the war spreads to Asia, but moved ahead with the purchase of Russian defense equipment. Similarly, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Malaysia have chosen to protect Russian arms trade over supporting Ukraine. Given anti-colonialist affinities between Indo-Pacific nations and Ukraine, failing to offer stronger, clearer alignment with the West’s rules-based order and with feminist principles may be a lost opportunity for smaller Indo-Pacific states.

It is unclear if Japan’s response is what Ukrainian feminists want. Japan, however, has taken what might be considered feminist approaches to foreign policy, offering humanitarian aid, resisting calls to provide military support, sanctioning Russia, and even increasing its intake of refugees. In so doing, Japan has modeled a foreign policy that other nations should emulate, especially smaller states, which could face similar threats in the future. Feminist foreign policy advocates hope that it continues to do so, while also addressing domestic gender equality challenges faced by Japanese women and its LGBTQ community. Any attempt at formal adoption of a Japanese FFP should include self-reflection on where Japan stands internationally on domestic gender policies, especially if Tokyo wants to set an example for other Indo-Pacific countries.

Hannah Cole (hannah@pacforum.org) is Program & Publications Manager and Non-resident James A. Kelly Korea Fellow at Pacific Forum. Maryruth Belsey-Priebe (maryruth@pacforum.org) is a Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Fellow at Pacific Forum and Harvard International Relations graduate student. Tevvi Bullock (tevvi@pacforum.org) is a WPS Fellow at Pacific Forum and PhD candidate in Gender, Climate & Humanitarian Action at Monash University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #20 – After Ukraine – Enacting a realistic Japanese diplomatic security policy

 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun. It has been edited and translated from Japanese.

With Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the world now stands at a crossroads. Will we revert to a pre-World War II order where the weak suffer what they must, and the strong do what they will? Or will we maintain the existing global order under international law? At this crucial moment, Japan must unite with the G7 and continue to impose tough sanctions on Russia to prevent further military challenges and uphold a free and open international order.

Those who suffer most in wars are always civilians. Japan should make every effort to engage with concerned countries to begin ceasefire talks and avoid further casualties. As of April 2, over 4.1 million Ukrainian citizens—nearly a 10th of Ukraine’s population—have been forced to flee to other countries. Although Japan has historically been reluctant to accept refugees, it has announced its intent to accept Ukrainians. Yet, the conditions under which they are accepted should be further relaxed. Meanwhile, the momentum for providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine is growing among Japanese citizens. Rational assessment of the turbulent international situation is essential to achieving balanced diplomacy.

Declining US influence

Because Washington failed to prevent Russia’s invasion, US influence in the world will weaken and we are heading towards a more multipolar world. Certainly, the United States has no obligation to defend a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and on certain conditions, Ukraine was promised territorial integrity and security by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia via the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Not standing by this commitment may lead to certain countries in East Asia to take actions similar to Russia’s, while setting a precedent that countries with nuclear weapons cannot be controlled. In particular, the danger of crises emerging in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula are increasing. Given US cautiousness in dealing with nuclear-armed states, Japan will have to engage in diplomacy and dialogue to reassure concerned countries.

Japan should reconsider its reliance on the United States, which has not fulfilled its role as the global policeman. At the same time, without the United States, East Asia will also likely become unstable. So, deepening the Japan-US alliance to keep the United States in Asia is critical. In that sense, Japan has a major role to play. Japan must take drastic measures to strengthen its diplomatic and defense capabilities and build a new international cooperative system centered on peace and stability in Asia. As situations in foreign countries are becoming increasingly tense, Japan is under pressure to rebuild its security strategy from scratch. The time is ripe to promote Japan’s readiness and actions to protect itself.

The role of political parties

A think tank focused on diplomacy and security policy should be established by my party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) of Japan, to renew and deepen policies, reduce over-reliance on the bureaucratic nerve center of Kasumigaseki, and amplify Japan’s global reach. There is an urgent need to stabilize relations with the United States and to establish an independent intelligence gathering and dissemination system. The CDP should therefore establish offices in Washington, DC.

While the opposition party should always offer alternatives to the ruling party, there is no need to highlight differences when it comes to diplomacy and security policy. We should leave party interests behind when it comes to issues directly linked to the survival of the nation, and instead unite to protect peace in Japan.

Promoting realistic policies

In the face of the current crisis, Japan must seek comprehensive foreign and security policies based on a realistic view of the international order. According to various polls, over 80% of people worry about Japan’s security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Protecting the lives of the people and the sovereignty of the nation should be the highest priority for Japan. National defense approaches should be further discussed and deepened and no topic should be taboo.

Gaining trust and reassuring the public are difficult tasks. Politicians should avoid making unrealistic and reckless assertions while also avoiding being overly sanguine about countries that are expanding their military. What Japan’s national defense policy requires today is to thoroughly reconsider Japan’s conventional capabilities while also ensuring the smooth operation of extended deterrence. The will and leadership of our politicians, and our realistic understanding of the geopolitical situation, will be further tested if we are to protect Japan and lead the liberal international order in Asia.

Hideshi Futori (info@futori.net) is a member of the Japanese House of Representatives in the Constitutional Democratic Party.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #18 – Ukraine and the decoupling of space cooperation with Russia

The imposition of wide-reaching sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine will have long-lasting effects on the space industry, academia, and government cooperation.

International cooperation with Russia, principally from Western countries, will likely take a similar path to the ongoing bifurcation in supply chains and academic cooperation between China and the United States and its allies and partner countries. This ongoing competition for both market and academic dominance in high-technology is the most poignant manifestation of a new geopolitical era marked by growing economic fragmentation and the retreat of globalization.

Australia’s Director General of the Office of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer told the Australian Financial Review’s Business Summit this month: “Technology is the center of gravity in this new geopolitical contest, and we are going to see increasing maneuvering between the great powers in particular for pre-eminence in critical technology.” Space falls squarely into this technological contest with far-reaching implications for cooperation between Russia and the West.

In February, five days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launched a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket’s first stage was built in Ukraine, but other parts came from the United States and featured components from many European nations, plus it was powered by a Russian engine. This exemplified how space cooperation has until now transcended geopolitical tensions. The continuation of such cooperation now looks unlikely.

Speaking to the Chinese media, Dmitry Rogzin, the head of Roscosmos, stated that the “European Space Agency and the whole European Union have taken a frenzied position on the conduct of Russia,” making cooperation “impossible.” Russia had already begun turning to China for greater space ties after the West imposed sanctions in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The latest spate of sanctions will further limit space cooperation with Russia and further push Moscow into Beijing’s orbit. Agreements on a number of missions have already been struck, including on the Chang’e-6, which seeks to return lunar samples from the far side of the moon, and the Chang’e 7, which looks for water at the lunar south pole. Last year, Moscow and Beijing also released an ambitious roadmap to construct a joint lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station.

Roscosmos’ future does not appear rosy, however. Russia’s space program has already come up against severe cash shortages and the Russian economy, barely bigger than Australia’s, faces significant contractions due to sanctions. Its ambitions and forecasted projects, including the development of its own space station, will likely face significant delays. “Roscomos is in for some very tough years,” David Burbach of the US Naval War College recently told media.

The hiatuses on joint projects, including the Venera-D mission with NASA and the ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency, represent some of the most immediately recognizable casualties for the space industry. But OneWeb’s pivot to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide launch services, after the tearing up of its contract with Russia, most clearly indicates Russia’s accelerating decline. While a major space player that has developed, and is developing, some world-leading space technology, Russia amounts to less than a central player today and will face considerable financial constraints going forward.

The dilution of dependence on Russian space services continues. NASA, for instance, no longer relies on purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at around $80 million a seat; SpaceX now launches astronauts via the Commercial Crew Program. As a result, the United States and other space powers have less need to maintain strong ties with Roscosmos, as seen in SpaceX’s offer to boost the altitude of the ISS. Besides, Russia’s bluff and bluster around deorbiting the space station already indicate an empire in decline.

By future-proofing access to facilities in orbit, NASA supports a number of private companies in funding the development of private stations that will replace the ISS. As Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA said, “The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance.”

Even if joint projects, academic or commercial, included Russian expertise, the current geopolitical climate will likely place hard limits on such projects. A significant collapse in scientific collaboration has already occurred and, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Congress banned US companies from using Russian rocket engineers for national security launches after 2022. “We need to completely reconceptualize and recognize that security and economics are completely integrated and interdependent,” Shearer pointed out in his speech to the business elite gathered in Sydney.

Some argue that cooperation with Russia can continue, noting that Moscow remains committed to supporting the ISS and just launched three cosmonauts to the station. However, Roscosmos continues to express doubt over its future involvement with the ISS beyond 2024 as it continues to advance plans to build its own private space station. Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin states that the plan is to be ready by 2025, but the difficulty in meeting this timing would likely result in Russia requesting access to the Tiangong space station that China hopes to complete this year.

Just as COVID-19 accelerated pre-existing trends around the bifurcation of the West and China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fast-tracked divisions already underway. Geopolitics extend beyond Earth and the blurring between civil and military spheres of space will only intensify competition. The deepening cracks and heightening geopolitical tensions negatively impact the critical work on establishing rules, norms, and principles for responsible behaviors in space necessary to ensure that the space domain remains free, open, and safe for everyone.

Philip Citowicki (citowicki@gmail.com) is a Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum and an Australian foreign policy commentator.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #17 – Ukraine: After invasion, what?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a pressure campaign unprecedented in both speed and severity. Many governments are trying to further pressure Moscow. A few others are discussing off-ramps to deescalate the conflict.

It isn’t clear, however, what this pressure or those off-ramps are meant to achieve because there has been little discussion of goals. This is a problem because without clear and realistic goals, any endeavor risks crumbling under its own weight or having unwanted consequences.

There can be five different goals after an invasion has begun. The first is to limit damage. In its most sweeping form, it means not getting involved, accepting that the invasion will proceed largely unimpeded and that the targeted country’s sovereignty will be sacrificed. The second goal is to stop the aggressor’s advance and reach an agreement that hands over some, but not all, of its anticipated gains. The third goal is to restore the status quo ante. The fourth is to go beyond the status quo and punish the aggressor. Finally, the fifth goal is to destroy–literally or de facto–the aggressor because its very existence has become unacceptable.

Thus far, many governments have suggested that the goal of the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is restoration of the status quo. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for instance, declared that the United States will “support Ukraine in its talks with Russia to reach a ceasefire and the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces.”

For several governments, however, restoring the status quo will likely not suffice. Frontline nations believe that Russia must pay a price to make clear to Putin and all would-be aggressors that such actions will not be tolerated. Some go further. No one serious has recommended Russia’s physical destruction, but French Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire stated (then walked back) that the goal of the pressure campaign is to “wage all-out economic and financial war on Russia” to “cause the collapse of the Russian economy.”

Others have echoed these themes, suggesting that relations with Moscow cannot return to normal until Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves office and a new regime is in place in the Kremlin. For instance, Ivo Daalder, a former US permanent representative on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, has argued for a “robust policy of containment” to “counter Russian expansionism, inflict real costs on the Russian regime, and encourage internal change that leads to the ultimate collapse of Putin and Putinism.”

There is a yawning gap, however, between these desired goals and what can be achieved given the limits that the responding powers have set for themselves. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, US President Joe Biden has insisted that the United States will help Ukraine in every way possible, including by providing military assistance, but that “[US] forces are not and will not be engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine.” The United States has resisted establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine because such an arrangement would put NATO into a direct fight with Russia. Support for Ukraine, then, is unconditional only until there is a risk of escalation and military confrontation with Russia.

In these circumstances, it isn’t clear that restoration of the status quo–seemingly the bare minimum acceptable for most governments–is within reach. Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia now professor at Stanford University, confessed as much, calling such an outcome “the most desirable but also the least likely.”

The Russian military operation isn’t proceeding smoothly, and Ukrainian forces are resisting, partly thanks to international assistance, but the power balance is unquestionably in Moscow’s favor and Putin appears determined to continue the invasion, indifferent to the consequences, both human and material. Putin seems willing to destroy Ukraine to possess it, using methods not dissimilar to the ones used by Moscow in Chechnya in the 1990s or, under his leadership, Syria this past decade.

For Putin, withdrawal from Ukraine and recognition of its status as an independent state would mean failure, the denial of his conception of Russian identity and the accompanying dream of rebuilding a modern Russian empire. The humiliation would be greater if the outcome entailed acceptance of Ukraine’s complete territorial integrity, i.e., the return of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass, which Moscow recognized as independent before the invasion, and of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. Make no mistake: many governments demand no less.

More ambitious goals, such as regime change in Russia, are even more elusive, and a new government in Moscow would also not necessarily be an improvement. Besides, pursuing such a goal would likely lead to military escalation–a development the United States, European powers, and others are trying to avoid. Putin, who has long believed that many are out to get him, could feel vindicated and lash out, either by widening the conflict beyond Ukraine or resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.

Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, recently said that while Putin likely did not anticipate the pushback he is getting in Ukraine and internationally, he “is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate–essentially doubling down.” Assume she’s right: now imagine what Putin could do if eliminating him became the policy of many governments (and if that policy galvanized Russians to support him).

Given the power asymmetry between Russia and Ukraine and the redlines that the governments responding to the invasion have drawn for themselves, the outcome of the conflict is likely to disappoint many. At best, Ukraine’s resistance and the pressure campaign will force Russia into a settlement, with to-be-determined terms, possibly short of restoring the status quo. At worst, Russia might succeed in destroying and/or vassalizing Ukraine.

Analysts will soon begin identifying lessons about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One is already emerging: there are hard limits to how much developments and outcomes can be shaped after a determined major nuclear-armed power has begun invading a weaker nation, especially when the responding powers rule out military engagement.

Admittedly, different situations will present different challenges and opportunities. In response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, building a coalition to pressure Beijing would likely be more difficult because many countries are much more dependent on the Chinese economy than on the Russian economy. Stopping or rolling back such an invasion, however, might be less challenging because the maritime environment in Asia presents Beijing with a natural barrier that would complicate its operations.

More importantly, whereas the United States refuses to go to war with Russia over Ukraine because it never committed to its defense, it has remained “strategically ambiguous” as to whether it would do so over Taiwan. In that case, then, Washington would not rule out military action, regardless of the escalation risks. Meanwhile, a military response would definitely be on the table in the event of an invasion of a NATO or another US treaty ally; Biden has stressed that “We will defend every single inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO.”

The key takeaway from the current conflict in Ukraine is that it is best to prevent an invasion from ever taking place. Practically, and especially for the United States, that means adapting its military posture and that of nations most exposed to, or worried about, potential invasion in ways that deny would-be aggressors the ability to proceed. It also means reducing and, if possible, eliminating dependencies and vulnerabilities they have with potential aggressors. Doing so will enhance deterrence and, should invasion happen regardless, allow for more effective resistance and, therefore, more flexibility in shaping developments and outcomes.

Had Ukraine worked harder (and been helped more) to adopt such a “denial strategy” after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin might have refrained from invading. If he had chosen to do so anyway, his forces would have encountered more resistance, increasing the prospects of a settlement favorable to Ukraine.

Looking to Asia where the power balance is shifting fast in China’s favor, this line of thinking should drive actions about Taiwan. No one wants to look back in a few years thinking that more should have been done to prevent or complicate a Chinese invasion. The time to act–and act fast–is now.

David Santoro (david@pacforum.org) is President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He is the editor of US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

PacNet #16 – South Korea’s presidential election aftermath: Ukraine as test for a “global pivotal state”

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

South Korea has watched the tragic development of war in Ukraine and—like much of the rest of the world—come down firmly on the side of Ukrainians. Seoul city authorities have displayed blue and yellow lighting on buildings and monuments to show solidarity. President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong have condemned Russia’s invasion and voiced support to their Ukrainian counterparts. Nongovernmental and civil society groups have launched emergency charity and humanitarian efforts, and citizens have made donations. Most substantively, South Korea has agreed to support and enforce the sanctions—spearheaded by the United States and the European Union—to impose costs on Russia.

At the same time, South Korea has been focused on its March 9 presidential election, which resulted in victory for conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. With a new executive team soon to enter the presidential office and ministries, South Korea’s approach toward Russia and the Ukraine war are likely to continue, but the new leadership may set different accents. New issues and challenges may also emerge depending on how the war evolves.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down?

South Korea is a member in good standing of the international community. It is democratic, well-governed, prosperous, and peaceful. It follows international law and supports the rules-based order. Today, it does so regardless of which party is in power, so it was not surprising that Seoul chose to implement the economic sanctions, financial transaction lockout, asset freezes, and export bans against Russia. The Moon administration recognized that Russia’s invasion is not just an attack against another sovereign state, but against sovereignty tout court—a concept a formerly colonized nation appreciates—and against the rules-based order generally.

That said, South Korea’s principles are tempered by pragmatism, and the Moon administration was mindful not to be too forward in responding to Russian aggression. At first, the Blue House offered rhetorical support to Kyiv and called out the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but was slow to condemn Russia by name. South Korea was also a follower—not a leader—in the campaign to sanction Russian entities. Seoul’s primary concern was potential blowback from Moscow, both economically and with respect to Russian support for inter-Korean relations.

South Korea has legitimate concerns, as it both exports and imports products to/from Russia. Nonetheless Seoul eventually acquiesced to the broad sanctions package, although it did negotiate inclusion on a US waiver list for certain export-ban items. Meanwhile, the Moon administration’s worry about alienating Russia as a partner for inter-Korean relations seemed primarily reflexive. Inter-Korean relations have been stagnant for years due to North Korean recalcitrance, and Seoul is a long way from sufficient rapprochement with Pyongyang such that Moscow’s support would be necessary.

For its part, Russia has indeed flashed its anger. South Korea predictably and understandably demurred from sending Ukraine lethal weapons, but that was not sufficient to prevent Moscow from placing Seoul on an “unfriendly list.” Consequently, South Korean firms owed payment in non-Russian currency will have the debt settled in rubles, which have declined drastically in value since the start of the war.

Enter Yoon Suk-yeol

In contrast with Moon’s progressive Democratic Party (DP), which tends to be more parochial and Peninsula-focused on foreign and security policy, Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) privileges more comprehensive and geographically expansive alliance alignment with the United States. Indeed Yoon’s campaign foreign policy statement committed to making South Korea a “global pivotal state.” The Russia-Ukraine war will test that commitment.

First, Yoon will need to maintain current sanctions on Russia, even if they have a negative effect on South Korea’s economy, or if Russia retaliates (including through cyberattacks). That will require crafting a narrative for the public, notably and convincingly underlining Seoul’s global role. Beyond that, the United States and European Union may strengthen sanctions, which South Korea would be expected to endorse. That could include joining a ban on the import of hydrocarbons and petrochemicals (of which South Korea imports a modest amount). There may also be cases in which Washington and/or European capitals increase pressure on China to dissuade it from assisting Russia with sanctions evasion. As a “global pivotal state,” Seoul may feel obliged to support such measures, which would risk South Korea’s economic relations with its number-one trading partner.

Finally, depending on how the war develops, South Korea may need to engage in peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization. Seoul may be called on to participate in rebuilding efforts in Ukraine, as well as in financial assistance programs. In addition to delivering these contributions, the challenge for Yoon would be to do so in a timely way, with South Korea out front and outspoken in bilateral and multilateral fora. This would signal that South Korea is now a “global, pivotal” leader.

The specter of North Korea

Even a “global, pivotal” South Korea cannot escape the specter of Pyongyang, and the Russia-Ukraine war has provided (at this point provisional) lessons for the Korean Peninsula. Those lessons are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, both South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s leadership circle would very likely have understood how pyrrhic the Russian invasion has been. Swallowing and digesting a country with an appropriately armed and motivated population is a devilishly difficult endeavor. Furthermore, military operations with poorly motivated/trained soldiers and shambolic logistics is a recipe for disaster. Note also that South Korea is well-armed (and allied with the United States) and would be motived to defend itself, while North Korea’s military likely has poorly motivated/trained soldiers and limited logistics capabilities.

Putin’s Ukraine war illustrates why North Korea would be foolhardy to invade South Korea. South Korea is thus perhaps marginally safer from North Korean attack. Nonetheless Yoon will surely want to bolster deterrence by re-starting full-spectrum US-South Korea joint military exercises, which have fallen by the wayside under Moon (and partially due to COVID).

On the other hand, Putin’s signaling of potential nuclear escalation in Europe highlights the nexus of the stability-instability paradox, nuclear coercion, and the escalate-to-de-escalate doctrine. Both South and North Korea will keenly watch to see what kind of effects Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship produces vis-à-vis NATO and Ukraine, and whether Russia is able to meet some of its objectives in Ukraine by overcoming conventional military failure through brandishing nuclear weapons as both sword and shield. Yoon’s national security team will watch this development and perhaps need to adjust South Korea’s defense posture accordingly (in consultation with the United States), including especially extended nuclear deterrence.

Conclusions

The Russia-Ukraine war will likely offer both opportunities and risks to the Yoon administration, and there are steps the administration can take to rise to the challenge. First, Yoon should prepare the ground for South Korea’s enhanced prominence as a “global, pivotal state.” Having greater voice in global and regional affairs increases influence and weight, but also means more responsibilities and costs. The South Korean public needs to be convinced of the value of this path. For example, Yoon has made a commitment to leading more in support of democracy and the rules-based order—this implies calling out the predatory behavior of certain states, which South Korea has not often done forcefully. Doing so can attract unwanted attention, and South Korea must be prepared.

On the conventional deterrence front, in addition to re-starting full US-South Korea joint military exercises, the Yoon administration should review South Korea’s defense procurement to make sure it has the right systems and equipment for national defense, notably for a nation with a dramatically declining population of males eligible for military service. In particular, the Yoon administration will need to take a hard look at the value of big-ticket items such as a planned light aircraft carrier. The efficiency of resources allocated for indigenous missile defense assets will also require close examination.

As for extended nuclear deterrence, Yoon may wish to reiterate his openness to the United States eventually re-stationing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, although Washington has already rebuffed this request during his campaign. More plausibly, Yoon and his senior security and defense officials should consider working more closely with Washington on nuclear planning for the Korean Peninsula, with the objective of further institutionalizing shared nuclear planning and strategy, akin to NATO.

Mason Richey (mrichey@hufs.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea and Senior Contributor at the Asia Society (Korea).

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Photo: Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president-elect and former top prosecutor, speaks at his campaign office after his election win. Source: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News

PacNet #15 – Ukraine: A turning point in Japanese foreign policy?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted an unprecedented global response. Despite their geographic distance, many Asian countries have joined the United States and Europe in imposing a wide range of sanctions. Japan surprised many with its condemnation of the invasion, in contrast to its hesitancy to take action against Russia after the 2014 invasion of Crimea or following the Myanmar coup.

But while these moves reflect shifts in Japan’s approach to the international order and its relations with both Russia and Europe, the specifics of the Ukraine crisis suggest that this trend may not necessarily apply to Japan’s foreign policy in the future.

Japan’s response to Russia

Prior to the invasion, Japan monitored the situation in Ukraine closely and took small steps to signal its alignment with the West. For example, Japan announced on Feb. 9 that it would divert some its liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports to Europe, where supply was tight. As Russia amassed troops near the Ukraine border, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Feb. 15 that he would extend at least $100 million in emergency loans, and Japan signed on to a G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement expressing concern on Feb. 19.

On Feb. 23, after Russia ordered troops into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, Japan joined Western nations in imposing sanctions and threatening to go further if Moscow launched an all-out invasion. Japan’s initial sanctionsincluded prohibiting issuance of Russian bonds in Japan, freezing the assets of specific Russian individuals, and restricting travel to Japan.

After the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, Japan ramped up its response in tandem with G7 countries and other partners. Kishida joined with other G7 leaders in condemning Russia’s actions as “a serious threat to the rules-based international order, with ramifications well beyond Europe.” Japan’s sanctions have since expanded to include restrictions on transactions with Russia’s central bank, freezing assets of Russian entities and individuals, excluding Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system, imposing export controls on goods such as semiconductors, and suspending visa issuance, among other things. Japan has also imposed sanctions on Belarus and provided $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, at least $100 million in loans, visa extensions, and basic supplies for its military. It also announced steps to accept refugees.

Japan coordinated its actions closely with the United States and others. It took many steps simultaneously with Washington and other first movers, although Tokyo has sometimes been a day or so behind, as in the blocking certain Russian banks’ access to SWIFT. Still, Japan’s stance on Russia has emerged as one of the toughest in the Indo-Pacific.

Motivations and limitations

Several factors combine to motivate Japan’s response, and also offer insights into the limitations to generalizing from this case to predict Japan’s responses to other crises.

First, the scale and nature of the conflict differ dramatically from the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea or other cases in which Japan displayed much more hesitancy. There is little ambiguity to the current situation: the conflict is far more intense, and Russia’s role as aggressor is undeniable. Moreover, the Ukrainian people’s resistance in the face of the invasion has inspired the sympathy of governments and publics around the world, including a growing segment of the Japanese population. Poll data suggests that the proportion of Japanese people supporting alignment with US sanctions has grown from 43% in January to 61% in late February after the start of the conflict.

Second, Russia’s actions undermine the rules and norms governing the international order, as Kishida has declared. Japan has been a major beneficiary of the post-World War II international order, and over the past decade has taken an increasingly high-profile role in defending its principles and institutions, from its leadership on trade to its promotion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. If countries violate the fundamental principle of state sovereignty without consequences, it destabilizes international relations in a way that threatens Japan’s national interests, with potential parallels to China looming large. Elites as well as the Japanese public fear such spillover. For example, a Nikkei poll released Feb. 28 showed that 77% of Japanese respondents were concerned that the Ukraine invasion increases the odds of China using force against Taiwan.

Third, while it was once common to treat events in Europe and Asia as separate, the importance of developments in one region for the other are now clearly understood. Japan welcomes increased engagement by Europe in the Indo-Pacific as a way to build coalitions with like-minded partners to help address thorny regional problems. By displaying solidarity with Europe on Ukraine, Japan helps amplify the effect of other countries’ sanctions and signals to its European partners in hopes they will reciprocate in the event of a similar contingency in the Indo-Pacific—such as in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.

Fourth, Japan’s economic interdependence with Russia is limited. In 2020, Russia was Japan’s 13th-largest import partner and accounted for about 1% of Japanese exports. Under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the Japanese government attempted to build a closer relationship with Russia in hopes of negotiating a favorable resolution to the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands. Although Japanese companies were encouraged to do business with Russia as part of this process, Russia ranked only 31st as a destination for Japanese outbound investment in 2020. Japan’s most significant economic connections with Russia come in the field of energy: imports of LNG, coal, and crude oil, plus Japanese involvement in the Russian energy sector. Japan has discussed banning Russian energy imports with the United States and Europe, a step that Washington decided to take on March 8. However, many in Japan are concerned about energy prices and shortages, despite Kishida’s reassurances that the country has sufficient reserves of oil and LNG to avoid a significant impact on supplies in the short term.

Finally, the failure of Japan’s conciliatory policy toward Vladimir Putin to produce improvements in their territorial dispute during previous administrations paved the way for Kishida’s harder line. Japan’s recent actions vis-à-vis Russia likely dashed any hopes of regaining the Northern Territories—at least while Putin remains leader—but this was already recognized as a lost cause by the final days of Abe’s time in office. Over the last year reports of increased activity in Russian military planes and warships around the disputed territories have prompted additional concern. Kishida was foreign minister under Abe and helped promote this prior agenda. The current crisis, however, is Kishida’s opportunity to break with past precedent and distinguish himself from Abe, while demonstrating solidarity with the West.

Still, Japan is unlikely to endorse a values-based diplomacy and will instead likely continue its traditional pragmatic approach. When the nature of a conflict is more ambiguous or its economic stakes higher, Japan is likely to display more hesitancy—both conditions are likely with China, with which Japan is highly interdependent, and which tends to favor gray zone conflict over outright aggression.

Even with Ukraine, it remains to be seen how far the United States and Europe will go with sanctions, and to what extent Japan will follow. As pressure mounts to extend sanctions to the energy sector, Japan will face difficult decisions.

While the Ukraine crisis may not herald a sea change in Japan’s overall foreign policy, it does mark a turning point in its policy toward Russia. Japan’s actions thus far also reveal important changes in the way Tokyo sees its role and its willingness to confront new global challenges.

Kristi Govella (kgovella@gmfus.org) is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States and an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. She is an expert on the intersection of economic and security policy in Asia, as well as Japanese politics and foreign policy. Her publications include Responding to a Resurgent Russia: Russian Foreign Policy and Responses from the United States and the European Union (2012). Follow her on Twitter @KristiGovella. 

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Photo: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a press conference on February 25, 2022. Source: Cabinet Secretariat Cabinet/Public Relations Office/Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

PacNet #14 – What the war in Ukraine means for Taiwan

The war in Ukraine has implications for Taiwan, which similarly fears attempted forced annexation by an authoritarian neighbor. There are different interpretations of those implications. Here are mine.

The war in Ukraine does not mean that a war over Taiwan is imminent. There has been much speculation that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine makes a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more likely because Beijing could take advantage of US attention being diverted to Europe.

This line of thinking has two major flaws. First, the recent deployment of 14,000 additional US troops and six F-35 aircraft to Europe in response to the Russia invasion does not significantly impair the ability of the US military to fight in the western Pacific. The officers of the US Indo-Pacific Command responsible for preparing and executing war plans and recommending courses of action to the White House are focused on developments in the Indo-Pacific, not Europe. The Biden administration’s attention to the war in Ukraine did not prevent it from thinking to send a delegation of former US defense officials on a reassurance visit to Taiwan.

Second, the idea of coordinated invasions of Ukraine and Taiwan assumes Beijing has already made the decision to use military force to compel cross-Strait unification and is waiting for an opportunity to strike. This outlook does not account for Beijing’s political calculus. China-Taiwan relations operate according to their own logic and timetable, independent of what is happening in Europe or even Hong Kong. Attempting a military conquest of Taiwan has always been a last resort that China would consider only when compelled to by Taipei moving unambiguously to a permanent political separation from China.

Xi Jinping’s first order of business is to stay in power. His immediate need is the secure a third term as Communist Party General Secretary during the 20th Party Congress in October. Absent a dramatic move by Taiwan toward independence, which President Tsai Ing-wen does not intend to make, Xi does not need to settle the Taiwan issue to get a third term. On the other hand, a war against Taiwan, the United States, and probably Japan would force Chinese elites to think that Xi had led China into disaster. Beijing’s recent hostile signaling to Taiwan, in the form of military exercises and warplane fly-bys, are probably less a rehearsal for attack than an attempt by Beijing to halt the trend of closer US relations with the Taipei government.

What the Ukraine war does for Taiwan is to improve Taiwan’s own strategic situation marginally.

The Russian invasion forced Beijing to prioritize among Chinese interests. Beijing wants worldwide recognition as a responsible, law-abiding, and constructive international citizen and it hopes to weaken strategic coordination between the United States and Western Europe. But it also wants to preserve its valuable working relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ March 1 press briefing (the most recent at the time of this writing), spokesman Wang Wenbin dodged a question of why Beijing refused to call the Russian campaign an “invasion” and backed away from his previous already-vague statement that “one country should not flagrantly undermine others’ sovereignty.” Instead, he drew moral equivalency between Russia and Ukraine by calling on “all parties to exercise necessary restraint” and implicitly blamed NATO for causing the war by “strengthening or even expanding military blocs.” Wang’s colleague Hua Chunying has repeatedly called the United States “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine.”

In choosing to support diplomatically what is almost universally seen as a villainous act of aggression, China’s international standing is reduced. The ceremonial veneer of moral uprightness that Chinese officials work so hard to maintain is tarnished. Consequently, Beijing’s agenda, including its position that it has the right to annex the de facto state of Taiwan, commands less international respect and engenders more suspicion. In general, a weaker rather than a stronger international position is a disincentive for Chinese leaders to make a decision they know will bring much global opprobrium, at least in the short term.

One of the factors that would support a Chinese decision to go to war against Taiwan would be the expectation that economic reliance on China would deter other important countries from levying serious sanctions against Beijing. Putin likely had a similar expectation with regard to Russia. But contrary to expectations, European governments proved willing and able to support quickly and unitedly a surprisingly tough stance against aggression, despite the potential harm to their economic interests.

Particularly significant was the disconnection of major Russian banks from the international SWIFT transaction network, a step Europe considered but was ultimately reluctant to implement following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The developed countries now have a template for future similar scenarios, including a cross-Strait war. Chinese elites might have believed that economics always trumps values. No longer.

The course of the war so far is not encouraging to Chinese military planners. Ukraine has demonstrated how a seemingly overmatched military can prove stubbornly formidable when fighting on its home ground and motivated by the objective of saving loved ones and statehood from an invader. This does not invalidate the China’s large quantitative military advantages, but it illustrates that superior numbers do not automatically guarantee success. The Russians’ problems with logistics and the difficulties they face trying to fight in cities are especially applicable to a would-be invader of Taiwan.

Finally, the war in Ukraine is likely to accelerate changes Taipei must make to improve the island’s chances of fighting off an attempted Chinese invasion. The war should focus minds on at least these three key issues.

First, Taipei must use its limited defense funds to acquire the weapons systems most useful for the all-important job of stopping attacking Chinese ships and aircraft. Second, Taiwanese conscript soldiers require a much more serious training program than they currently get. Third, Taipei should organize reserve soldiers into a territorial defense force, such as is now acquitting itself well in Ukraine. The prospect of contending with an independent guerrilla army that could fight on even after the apparent defeat of the regular Taiwanese armed forces adds to the disincentives against Beijing choosing war.

The ongoing war should serve as a warning to Beijing that its irredentist claims over Taiwan would not shield China from international condemnation as a war-criminal regime, or from economic retribution if it attacked Taiwan. Nor could it expect the people of Taiwan to accept forced annexation supinely. Ukraine’s heroism reverberates around the world, including in the Taiwan Strait.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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PacNet #13 – What the Indo-Pacific sees in Ukraine

The capitals of the Indo-Pacific are closely watching the invasion of Ukraine. From Tokyo to Taipei, Hanoi to Canberra, and Bangkok to Beijing, Russia’s invasion presents a lucid lesson as to the tactics China could use in any forced re-unification of Taiwan, such as gray zone operations, lawfare, fake news, military might, and posturing.

But the Indo-Pacific faces numerous other areas where a Russian-style takeover with Chinese characteristics could happen. In the East China Sea, the Senkaku Islands face nearly daily incursions and challenges to Japanese sovereignty through lawfare tactics such as adoption of a Chinese Coast Guard Law in January 2021.

According to Lyle Goldstein, the Taiwan Strait remains ripe for invasion and in the South China Sea the Philippines has experienced Chinese swarming gray zone operations such as the April 2021 Whitsun Reef incident, as well as Chinaexplicitly rejecting the Permanent Court of Arbitration 2016 decisions against China’s claims. Today, China holds a set of artificial islands it has militarized, supposedly as an outpost for the delivery of emergency aid and humanitarian aid to Southeast Asian friends.

What the Indo-Pacific sees

Three concerns have emerged from Russia’s invasion. The first has to do with US security guarantees at the bilateral level. After the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, concerns have resurfaced as to whether the United States will come to the aid of Japan over the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan in the event Beijing seeks to unify it with the mainland.

Similarly, in the South China Sea critical sea lanes of communication, the major arteries of trade and import/export of energy are potentially at risk if China decides to engage in a forced acquisition of these territories.

Stakeholders in the region worry that a Russian-style contingency in the East China Sea, South China Sea, or Taiwan Strait would fundamentally collapse the regional security architecture, placing invaluable sea lines of communication and the First and Second Island Chain in the hands of authoritarian China, a regime with an established track record of economic coercion and weaponization of supply chains.

The second area of concern for Indo-Pacific stakeholders is the response of the United States and the international community. Stakeholders closely observe the tools that will be applied to penalize, discipline, and push back against Russia’s expansionism.

They should appreciate that the European Union has taken a collective stance including the EU’s first batch of Russia sanctions targeting 351 lawmakers, high-ranking officials, and banks. Germany has taken forceful actions by putting Nord Stream 2 on hold, and the United States has coalesced and strengthened NATO unity in the face of Russia’s belligerence. This includes comprehensive and collective sanctions such as “sweeping financial sanctions and stringent export controls that will have profound impact on Russia’s economy, financial system, and access to cutting-edge technology.”

The question for many Indo-Pacific states is: Will this be sustained? Will it be escalated, and will deterrence capabilities be deployed to prevent further expansion of Russian influence into Eastern Europe? And, perhaps most importantly, will this pay dividends?

This is critical for Tokyo, Taipei, Canberra, and Southeast Asian countries. They view enhanced deterrence capabilities as essential for pushing back against aggressive Chinese behavior in their region. This includes deterrence systems to “prevent low-intensity crisis scenarios like the landing of Chinese fishing crews or maritime law-enforcement officials on the Senkaku Islands,” according to Iwama Yoko and Murano Masashi.

In Japan’s case, Iwama and Murano also stresses the importance of enhancing the “MSDF’s capabilities to swiftly negate any Chinese efforts at escalation, thereby underpinning its national capability to handle situations arising in the gray zone.”

The logic of Indo-Pacific stakeholders is that anything less than substantial investment in deterrence and costly punitive measures against the Putin regime would result in Beijing drawing false conclusions about the resolve of the United States and its allies, and thus an end to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The hope for capitals in the Indo-Pacific is that a robust defence of Ukraine will not distract the United States from sustained engagement at all levels in the region. In addition, they hope that confronting Russia will mean that the United States and its allies can draw lessons from Russia’s invasion, including the need to maximize deterrence capabilities within the Indo-Pacific. Ideally this will be integrated with economic sanctions as well as a blocking of potential aggressors’ ability to use the financial system and sea lanes of communications freely—key elements to maintain China’s economic prosperity.

Third, and relatedly, capitals in this region will watch for a shift of resources away from the Indo-Pacific and towards Ukraine. The Biden administration has been adamant that it will not intervene militarily in the conflict (notwithstanding the at least 7,000 troops that have been sent to “ reassure skittish NATO allies in Eastern Europe”). Capitals within this region will look at the investments NATO and the United States place in Poland, Hungary, and other countries vulnerable to Russian incursions or tactics including the weaponization of refugees.

They will be also look for a concrete example of resources directed at the Indo-Pacific. This includes a United States Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that not only competes with Chinese initiatives but offers new initiatives and frameworks for integrating the region. That includes inculcating a rules-based order, transparency, and good governance in the region to deal with emerging regional challenges.

What to expect

While Indo-Pacific capitals are concerned about the US position in the region, some like Japan will not wait for the United States to respond while others will vacillate in silence. They will likely begin their own bilateral and multilateral initiatives to strengthen deterrence capabilities. This will include more proactive cooperation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) at many of the contested areas within the Indo-Pacific.

This proactive diplomacy will not only translate into Quad partners providing for their own maritime security but also into bringing in other partners into a Quad-plus formation to ensure that the Quad remains a nimble institution that can deal with ad-hoc regional problems.

AUKUS-based deterrence capabilities will likely accelerate within the region. Many Indo-Pacific stakeholders will welcome this. We are also likely to see contingency strategies to deal with challenges across the Taiwan Strait as well as South China Sea and the East China Sea. Tokyo has been at the forefront of this shift, articulating Japan’s security concerns over Taiwan, and with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stressing that a Taiwan security dilemma is a Japan security dilemma.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders, including China, will look at the failures and successes of Russia, but also the United States and its allies. China will look for cracks in the US-NATO armor, seeking leverage to pursue its geopolitical objectives across the Taiwan Strait and East and South China Seas. They will look for weaknesses in the Biden administration and commitment to sanctions, including removing Russia from the SWIFT system, which will have economic implications for the United States and the partners. One consequence, for instance, could be the acceleration of China’s attempts to adopt a digital currency to deploy throughout the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network of countries and potentially insulate China from future sanctions.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders will also look to the strategies that the European Union and the United States develop to deal with the energy shortages and increases in energy prices as Russia will likely weaponize energy resources to pressure EU countries to step back from sanctions.

Working together, Canada and the United States may provide some energy relief in the short to mid-term, until the European Union further diversifies away from Russia as its primary energy supplier.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the canary in the coal mine for many Indo-Pacific stakeholders. A forceful, collective, and effective response to Russia’s belligerence would do much to accrue the confidence of the United States allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); a senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI); a senior fellow at the East Asia Security Centre (EASC); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

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Photo: A Chinese Coast Guard ship seen near the Senkaku Islands in February. Source: Hitoshi Nakaima/Kyodo

PacNet #12 – Ukraine: China’s Latest Strategic Blunder

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

Despite its self-proclaimed status as a defender of state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others, China has found itself unable to criticize its close strategic partner Russia over its “military operation”—Beijing won’t even refer to it as an invasion—of Ukraine, blaming instead (surprise, surprise) the United States for forcing Moscow to defend itself from the mere prospect of Ukraine possibly one day joining NATO. The best it would do is abstain at the UN Security Council while calling on “all sides” to exercise restraint.

China’s position has some short-term advantages. As the rest of the world refuses to buy Russian oil, gas, or wheat, China will shamelessly step in to keep the Russian economy from collapse by buying these commodities, no doubt at a reduced price. As Moscow becomes more and more dependent on China’s assistance, it’s real status as the junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship will be further confirmed and solidified. Russia will join the club of third world countries who have become increasingly indebted to Beijing and thus more willing (if not compelled) to do its bidding.

Putin’s recent speeches have made it abundantly clear that his real motivation in invading Ukraine—which he has called a fake country—is the rebuilding of the historic Russian empire. Like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Stalin (the not-so-great) before him, he sees the Ukrainian breadbasket as rightfully belonging to Russia, and he means to take it back. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping would do well to look at the maps of the former empires. Ukraine was not the only area they had in common; so too is the whole of Central Asia, Russia’s so-called “near abroad.” Like Ukraine, there are many Russian-speaking citizens in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics who could one day be called upon to declare independence within the individual post-Cold War republics and call on Mother Russia for help, as the separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine did to “justify” Putin’s intervention there.

The country with the most to lose in this scenario is China, whose growing influence throughout Central Asia must be seen by Putin as a threat that must be tolerated today but eventually redressed. One can only imagine how much it upsets the Russian leader that the organization through which both Beijing and Moscow extend their influence in Central Asia is named after a city on China—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—rather than a Russian one, given Moscow’s historic reign over this entire region. The “Great Game” of the 21st Century may still end up pitting Moscow against Beijing in a region historically seen as Moscow’s soft underbelly. China’s silence, if not tacit support for Moscow’s effort to reestablish the western boundaries of Russia’s former empire will eventually come back to haunt Beijing when Putin the Great eventually (and I would argue inevitably) turns his attention southward.

Meanwhile, pundits are spilling a lot of ink speculating on how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will lead to or somehow justify or make inevitable a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They overlook the significant differences between the two, including 90 miles of ocean and a “rock solid” US commitment to help Taiwan defend itself in a form and manner yet to be determined. Putin was able to factor out a US/NATO military response in planning his invasion; Xi will need to factor the US (and perhaps its Asian allies) in. While Washington continues to maintain its policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether or not it would respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it has become significantly less ambiguous about its support for Taiwan democracy in the wake of China’s heavy-handed pressure tactics toward Taiwan and its blatant violation of the Sino-UK Joint Declaration that was supposed to assure basic freedoms in Hong Kong for 50 years following the 1997 turnover of the former UK colony to the Mainland—two earlier strategic blunders by Xi.

This is not to say that how Washington and the rest of the free world responds to the Ukraine invasion won’t be noticed in Beijing. One of the (should be intended) consequences of the concerted effort to inflict a heavy economic cost on Russia for its adventurism should be a strong message to China that it could expect the same if it were ever to invade Taiwan. Beijing also needs to understand that, if the situation is reversed, Russia is unlikely to be able to return the favor and bail China out.

Putin’s narrative should also be sobering to Beijing. It began with a group of separatists—do we dare call them “splittists”—(this time in Donetsk and Luhansk) declaring independence. A major power (in this case, Russian) then recognized these newly independent states and decided to militarily intervene to defend them. Is this the type of precedent Xi Jinping really wants to support?

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on February 4, 2022. Source: Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters